Sunday, May 08, 2011

Watching the National Theatre's Production of Frankenstein Live at the BFI IMAX

I’m a fan of the story of Frankenstein, and many of the adaptations inspired by the tale. So when the National Theatre production, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberpatch and Johnny Lee Miller was announced, I was pretty excited.

I was very keen to go, and waited patiently for when tickets for the show would be available to the public; they had already been on sale to members for a while. Unfortunately, by the time this date had rolled by, all the tickets had been gobbled up by members, leaving absolutely none left to the general public.

I can't help but feel that this is pretty shameful. When a high profile performance is staged, it’s an opportunity to encourage and entice those who might not normally go to the theatre to visit. By allowing members to walk off with all the tickets, this opportunity is totally wasted.

Furthermore, it’s grossly unfair to more casual theatre goers, who can scarcely afford to pay membership for all of London’s art institutions, just in case something comes along that they absolutely can’t miss.

Having a number of day ticketrs available to queue for in the morning is hardly sufficient. Who of us can realistically take time out of work to go and queue and hope there are tickets left? In a time when arts budgets are being slashed here and there, this sort of thing seems rather short-sited. Why should people accept money going on the arts, when it’s only accessible to the wealthy, while their local services are being cut?

Anyway, there was a chance to see it at the BFI IMAX, broadcast live from less than a 100 metres away, and broadcast around the world. This I do at least give the National Theatre credit for - it's a wonderful idea.

Nick Dear's new adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic has one difference which very quickly sets it apart from all the others. The play begins right at the moment of creation, the monster's birth. Frankenstein's formative years, and the ideas and inspirations that drove him, are all omitted.

Nick Dear has stated that he wanted to give the monster back his voice, which often missing from most adaptations, particularly in cinema. This is because most big screen adaptations derive from the excellent Universal film, in which the monster is mostly mute, though not always. In the book however, the monster learns to speak from listening to others, and is more than eloquant enough to converse fluently with his creator when they meet again, years later.

The play begins with a flash of lightening(some parts of the Universal film are too good not to use).Benedict Cumberpatch then roles out of a cocoon, a new born who’s fully grown. Besides the excellent make-up, his performance is quite staggering. The first few minutes feature nothing but him rolling around the floor, gargling, slobbering and biting. He’s a baby, learning how to use his new body. There’s something quite enchanting, and unsettling, watching as he learns to walk, and to run, stomping uncontrollably around the stage.

Then Frankenstein, in Johnny Lee Miller’s only appearance in the first half, shoos him away, and he retreats into the forest. He begins to watch and imitate a small family, and befriends a blind man, the only one who could not be repulsed by his deformity. But there’s an interesting new consideration in this new version. As the old man teaches him about literature, the monster is taken by the violence inherent in many of the classics, and begins to see acts of revenge as noble and romantic.

He soon puts these notions of revenge into practice. He is spurned by the rest of the blind man's family, who are terrifed by his appearance. In the book he burns down their house, but only after they have left it. In this play, he burns it down while they are still inside it.

When he and Frankenstein meet again, it’s the monster’s quotation from Paradise Lost that startles Frankenstein so. How could this brutish murdersome creature understand the classics? And how could he have such a violent interpretation of such great works.

The second half sticks closer to the book, although it omits Frankenstein’s friend Clerval and execution of the family maid. One interesting change is the expanded role of Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s beloved. In the novel and film adaptations Elizabeth plays the role of saintly heroine, and untouchable who appears fleetingly but whom Frankenstein reveres and the monster destroys.

Frankenstein is never able to settle with Elizabeth. He is distraught at the destruction his creation causes, and feels unworthy. This play takes this angst a step further by suggesting that the creation of the monster is somehow an extension of Frankenstein’s impotence, that his creation provides him with the son he cannot create through procreation. It’s an interesting thought, though the creation of a man from cadavers might be a somewhat extreme reaction.

It culminates in a touching scene, on their wedding night, when Elizabeth approaches her husband, obsessed with the monster’s threat of revenge, and simply asks why he will not touch her. Then, shortly after Frankentein confesses all, Elizabeth finally meets the monster in a scene which seems inexorable, yet does not appear in the book.

Elizabeth treats the monster with a sympathy not yet shown to him, and most importantly, like a mother might. The monster is moved, almost seems to be entirely taken by her willingness to love. But he has given his word to exact revenge, and believes himself honour bound to carry out his threat. He pins her to the bed and strangles her, whilst thrusting in an unsubtle act of simulated rape. In this brief moment, the creature in his primal nature seems much more human than his intellectual, impotent creator.

Danny Boyle’s production really does celebrate what has made Mary Shelley’s story last through the generation – and it’s not the horror or the supernatural. It celebrates the depths of the book, which carries so many interpretations, from playing God to man's evolution, from fatherhood to human nature. The fact that Nick Dear’s script can still find new things in a book approaching its 200th anniversary shows just how forwarding think the novel is.

And the stars more than justify the stir that their casting has created. Somehow, one imagines that Benedict Cumberpatch, who besides playing the master detective Holmes is normally scene in costume dramas, would be better as the doctor. Yet in his remarkably physical performance as the creature, one can hardly think of anyone else playing it.

It’s the star role for sure, though Johnny Lee Miller still has plenty to work with as the doctor. Frankenstein is a stronger, more forceful man here than the rather weakly man in the book, yet there are moments when he becomes completely unstuck, particularly when faced with the honest emotions of Elizabeth, Naomie Harris, who deserves mention for her performance.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing these roles, yet those who have seen both versions, have remarked that they are startling in their portrayals of either character.

And of watching the play at the Imax? Well, it provided views of the action that you could not possibly get from any one seat at the play. But it did not feel the same as being there, feeling part of the action as you do when only feet away from everything that occurs. That’s not to say that the audience weren’t enthralled. When digital system messages appeared in big blue boxes on the screen, there were gasps of panic from those present. These disruption, though irritating, were brief.

Alas, the production is now over, not that you would've been able to see it anyway.
But I will say is that had I been able to see it, it may well have been one of the most exciting nights of theatre I have enjoyed thus far.