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Frankenstein, National Theatre

Nick Dear, adapted from Mary Shelley
Directed by Danny Boyle
Courtesy of National Theatre
Danny Boyle’s return to the London theatre scene has been much talked about. Looking at the list of cast and creatives it is easy to understand why; the Oscar winning director coupled with the increasingly popular Benedict Cumberbatch the much admired Jonny Lee Miller begun turning heads as soon as it was announced. The question on everybody’s lips with these ‘big name’ productions is always the same: will they live up to expectations? Or perhaps more acutely, will the production be enjoyed by audiences because it is a good production, or because it is filled with celebrity names? With these questions in our head, our outing to see Frankenstein was approached somewhat apprehensively. On this occasion, we were not disappointed: the production is outstanding.
Nick Dear’s adaptation is a good one. At first it is a bit slow, but it picks up in the middle as Victor Frankenstein is introduced, and the last hour is compelling stuff.  On occasions, the dialogue feels  a little unnatural but Dear’s penning of the Creature is excellent, and the nuances and contradictions of modern life shine through clearly as ‘it’ attempts to come to terms with human society.  Additionally it is the evolution of the Creature which drives the plot forwards, as you see its wide-eyed and endearing innocence gradually vanish to be replaced by a cruel and brutal monster.
The quality of Dear’s script is enhanced by extraordinary performances by Cumberbatch and Lee Miller, although the supporting cast came across as slightly flat. On the night we saw it, Cumberbatch played Frankenstein and Lee Miller the Creature. However, this is one of two possible combinations, as the two actors will alternate between the roles. Cumberbatch was, as always, a strong stage presence and his delivery of the egotistical loner Victor Frankenstein was spot on, creating a character that the audience admire, loathe and pity simultaneously. However, the show was stolen by Lee Miller, whose portrayal of the Creature was world-class. Working to the strengths of Dear’s script, Lee Miller successfully creates a tortured and inhuman character which the audience cannot fully comprehend. This is an extraordinary achievement – some actors struggle to come to terms with human characters, let alone reanimated corpses!
Mark Tildesley’s design is innovative and in places awe-inspiring. The Olivier is a cavernous venue, and many a designer has failed to properly get to grips with it. The set is huge yet intimate when it needs to be, and in addition the theatrical techniques employed are cutting edge yet remarkably simple. On a couple of occasions the scenic changes were somewhat clunky, but given the savage, almost industrial nature of the play, this could easily have been deliberate. Furthermore they were neatly covered by the terrifying original score of Underworld. Most memorable is the huge mirror above the audience, covered with hundreds of light bulbs. When on full power they create a harshly lit and uncomfortable environment as the audience are blasted with a wave of dazzling light and intense heat. This is just one of the many theatrical devices used by the design team to create and maintain a mutli-layered, sinister atmosphere throughout the performance.
Frankenstein is an ambitious and unique piece of theatre. It brings together outstanding direction, utterly exhilarating stage and lighting designs and wonderful performances. To fully appreciate its complexity, it is certainly necessary to see it twice, if not just to see Cumberbatch and Lee Miller swap roles in what promises to be a hugely interesting theatrical experiment. Perhaps most importantly, Frankenstein once again raises the bar for theatre around the world. In a scene dominated by long running musicals and over-performed dramas we come to rely on places like the National Theatre to take the risks that have driven theatre forwards for generations. The National is a global treasure, and one of a few things that Britain can be truly proud of in the modern day. Long may it continue.

Frankenstein runs at the National Theatre until 2nd May 2011. 
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or book online at www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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  1. ChazMVP, Parts unkown

    Why did they chose to alternate the roles? Was it to encourage repeat viewings or a gimmick? I saw Thursdays production, Cumberbatch was the monster and JLM Frankenstein.

    I can’t help but feel the role reversal the next night, would be the better performance. At times the audience were laughing at the monster.

    I agree about the support cast, they were weak excluding Karl Johnson. I suppose they have used the majority of the budget on the title roles.

    Having seen several NT productions, I found this one made the best use of the revolving stage, the location for the ending did bring back memories of the mess that was Fram!

  2. A review I can completely agree with. Nicely put.

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