28/07/12 - Theatre review: National Theatre Live - Frankenstein

Having missed the sell-out performances of Frankenstein when it first played at the National Theatre – the result of living up North and being a poor student – and then again the first round of NT Live screenings last year, I thought I’d lost my chance.  Which means I was over the moon to find out that, due to its huge popularity, the National Theatre would be screening the production again in the summer of 2012.  After convincing my dad that of course this was what he wanted to do on Father’s Day, we booked tickets to the showing on Sunday 17th June, with Johnny Lee Miller playing the role of the Creature.  Because, for anyone who isn’t aware, that was part of this production’s immense appeal; the novelty of the two leading actors (Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch) swapping the roles of Frankenstein and his monster on alternate nights (or weeks, I’m not entirely certain on the details).

I went into the cinema with absolutely no preconceptions.  I have never read Mary Shelley’s original novel nor seen any of the many screen adaptations.  I was aware of the stereotypical Frankenstein image – tall, green, bolt through the neck – but I knew that wouldn’t be what I was about to see.  What I did witness was a spectacular production which raised some pretty heavy moral issues, despite some inconsistency in the abilities of the supporting cast.  Danny Boyle's direction was innovative and there were actually some elements in the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony which were reminiscent of Frankenstein.

I thought that Johnny Lee Miller, an actor I had heard of but never actually seen in anything before, did a spectacular job of portraying the development of the Creature – both moral and physical.  The first ten minutes involve Miller emerging from what can only be described as a “womb” of sorts and then giving one of the most impressive physical performances I think I have ever witnessed – the movements and sounds are those of an infant becoming accustomed to their new body and to the things it is capable of.  There is something almost distressing about witnessing this lack of control in a grown man, and it really sets the tone for the rest of the production as he is harshly sent away by the man who created him, Victor Frankenstein.  The moral implications of the role are also sensitively handled by the actor’s portrayal – his horrific, crudely stitched-together appearance means that the only kindness he meets is from an elderly blind man, De Lacey, who teaches him to speak and read, and essentially civilises him.  However, when De Lacey’s son drives the Creature away, he becomes wildly destructive and reveals a much more brutish side to the character who had previously seemed so innocent and misunderstood.  These two aspects successfully combine throughout the production to create a dangerously unpredictable character, one who switches from displays of bestial violence to reciting Milton’s Paradise Lost in mere seconds. 

I was very interested to see Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the Creature – as soon as we got home from the cinema, we booked tickets to see the reverse casting on Thursday 5th July at FACT in Liverpool. Anyone who knows me can tell you what a huge fan I am of Benedict’s work, particularly in the BBC’s recent Sherlock series.  However, I was a little apprehensive to see his handling of such a complex role.  I had no doubts in his abilities as an actor, but Miller’s Creature was just such a sympathetic character and I couldn’t quite imagine Cumberbatch living up to that.  Benedict’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein was superb – he was well-suited to the role, and there were aspects of the performance which were reminiscent of the ‘tortured genius’ vibe he gives off as Sherlock Holmes.  However, whenever I found myself starting to feel sympathetic towards him, he would do or say something which undermined it.  I felt that that was incredibly effective as it really raises some questions about the nature of good and evil, and who is truly the “monster” in this situation.

In contrast to this, I found Johnny Lee Miller's Victor a little...lack-lustre.  He was good, don't get me wrong, but I felt that Benedict was much more able to do the role justice.  I found Benedict's Creature to be a little more difficult to pin down.  He was certainly a sympathetic character, although not quite so much as Miller's was, but the more animalistic side seemed to be emphasised.  Overall, Benedict was much more consistently good  between the two performances, whereas JLM's Creature vastly outshone his Victor.

Although there were elements of Nick Dear's script which I felt let the production down a little, the overall performance was stunning enough to distract me from that.  The combination of the stellar leading performances with an impressive set and amazing use of light and sound left me feeling incredibly moved.  When we left, my mum asked me an interesting question – “Would you say you enjoyed that?”  It wasn’t something I found easy to answer.  The production was visually spectacular, the moral message ambiguous enough to spark a healthy debate on the car ride home and the whole thing was a complete departure from what people have generally come to typically associate with the idea of Frankenstein.  But did I actively enjoy it?  With some distance from it, yes I did.  Immensely.  But at the time, I felt slightly like I’d lost the ability to function.  It was a pretty harrowing experience which raised a lot of questions I did not, and still do not, feel equipped to answer about the nature of humanity.  I feel like seeing the production a second time and getting to experience a slightly different interpretation helped me to get my head around it a little more.  Although it’s most definitely not a production for the faint-hearted, featuring a lot of violence, pretty distressing scenes from the start and culminating in a completely unexpected rape scene towards the end, I thought it was a wonderful production.  There have been rumours that the National Theatre are considering releasing a DVD of the performances and I really hope that this is true.  I know a lot of people who would have liked to see the screenings missed out for various reasons, which is such a shame.  So come on, National Theatre, let's make this happen!

If you want to watch the official trailer, you can find it here.  Did you see this production, whether at the National Theatre or one of the NT Live screenings?  What did you think?  Share your thoughts in the comments section!