Perhaps the first big theatre ‘event’ of the year is the National Theatre’s Frankenstein which has taken the step of cross-casting its two main parts, so on different nights one can see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller playing the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. The play is a new work by Nick Dear although based on Mary Shelley’s famous novel and features the National Theatre directorial debut of Danny Boyle, Oscar-winning director of films like Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. The programme of who is playing whom has now been published, although the run is currently sold out, but the previews remained unallocated so it was a lucky dip as to who we would get when we went to see it: just to clarify, this is a review of a preview performance from Tuesday 8th February which I have kept in mind whilst blogging about this show.
There’s a highly atmospheric entrance into the Olivier, with a bell tolling and a strange looking pod revolving slowly around the stage. As the lights darkened to a womb-like red, a figure began to emerge from this pod and eventually a completely naked Benedict Cumberbatch broke free to be birthed into this cruel chamber. It is hard to see how this opening 15 or so minutes will be bettered this year, as a physical performance it is truly outstanding as he slowly becomes accustomed to the world through squinting eyes, stuttering sounds and a stumbling gait, controlled through a stunning light feature that hangs above the stage, protruding into the audience that flashes blindingly, radiating an intense heat too, as a highly effective warning device. It is a remarkably open sequence too, not just because he is in the nude, but because he is so free in his movements and the way in which he shows the fast-burgeoning intelligence of the Creature, in his reaction to his first dawn or the rain for instance: he really sets the marker for the rest of the play in creating this empathetic character who one can’t help but root for (the odd murder excepted of course).
Such an effective and expressionistic opening would be a hard act to follow at the best of times, but the (metaphorical, as opposed to the literal) warning bells sounded straightaway with the arrival of a bizarre steam-punk-inspired train complete with random singing, the dreaded ‘movement’ and sparks flying everywhere which thankfully disappears as abruptly as it arrives. The introduction of other characters into the narrative is not particularly successfully done here at any point, partly due to the compressed timescale: we rip through months and years in the blink of an eye but it is never quite clear enough. More crucially though, the fast pace means that we have no time to get to know any of the subsidiary characters, whether it is the de Laceys from whom the Creature learns so much, even the tragic young William Frankenstein and the rest of his household, a lot has been sacrificed for the expediency of interval-free pace.
The main stumbling block for me though, and usual caveats about previews aside, was that it does have to be said that this is a generally shockingly bad script at the minute. I don’t think there is a single supporting character afforded any real depth in here by Dear’s writing nor a single scene that is allowed to pass without painfully simplistic explanations therefore dragging out too many scenes to interminable length. In some cases, the quality of actor manages to transcend the material, John Stahl brings a wry Celtic humour to his grave-robber, I quite liked Karl Johnson as the kindly De Lacey and Ella Smith is extremely charismatic with the meagrest of lines as the maid in the Frankenstein’s house. But Naomie Harris is saddled with a deal of (what felt to me like) anachronistic sassiness to many of her lines which didn’t fit well with the character and her own dilemmas, consequently she struggled to form a believable bond with Miller’s Victor. Whereas one feels that this is a fixable issue, George Harris’ M Frankenstein is a woefully inadequate performance at the moment: whether due to extenuating circumstances or misjudged direction, he is so very awkward, incredibly immobile, incongruously accented and extremely difficult to watch.
But even Victor doesn’t escape the weaknesses of the script. He is not presented as much of a character in this play, arriving midway through the show and given little opportunity to develop as he deals with incident after incident. By the time some back-story is given, through a most clumsily executed device, it is too little too late really although Miller gave it his all: as he arrives to see the Creature raping his new wife, he slumps to his knees rather than actually getting in there to stop him, which felt a bit like a metaphor for the show… The duels between these two characters are generally the strongest parts of the show though, the play really does crackle when it is about the pair of them and Cumberbatch and Miller clearly have great chemistry and seem to be relishing the prospect of the run ahead of them.
Against all this is the ingenuity in the set design from Mark Tildesley and a staging which utilises the opportunities offered by the Olivier in the most satisfying way I remember seeing since His Dark Materials. The drum is effectively used, revolving from the moment we enter the auditorium and rising intermittently to reveal a range of well-designed sets moving us from Geneva to Scotland and the North Pole among other places, keeping us very much in the 19th century although Boyle’s flair cannot resist the odd modern touch. Underworld’s sound-score is well done but becomes a little insistent at times, sounding too much like, well, Underworld but Bruno Poet’s lighting is excellently done throughout, none more so than with the already mentioned hanging light feature which is inventively used several times in the show.
The heavily teenaged crowd lapped it up and there was a good number of people of all ages giving a standing ovation which I found quite surprising to be honest. Cumberbatch’s performance was indeed electric but so much so that one longed for him to return to the stage in the scenes where he was not present. And no matter how flashy the design or the set, this should not distract from the fundamental weaknesses of this play which are glaring, at the moment. Perhaps it will improve before opening night which is indeed nearly three weeks away, a mightily long preview period; perhaps one really does need to see it both ways round, the added depth of seeing both interpretations making more sense to the production as a whole, I don’t really know. I cannot say that I am inclined to part with any more money to see it again to give you the benefit of both incarnations of this show, though I will be interested to hear what others have to say about it. For me though, this is one ginormous example of style; much classy style at that, let it be said, over substance.