Friday, April 15, 2011

Constant Reader I am ALL behind... now where was I? Oh yes. National Theatre Part 2.So it turns out, you can keep your jukebox musicals or over-hyped film-to-stage west end shows... the show that is the #1 fight-for-a-ticket production is the National's FRANKENSTEIN by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller who are alternating the roles of 'Victor' and 'The Creature'.

The Benedict Frankenstein/Jonny Creature combo was the one that made most sense to me but the only performance we managed to get was last Saturday matinee. It made an interesting contrast to leave the brilliant sunshine and chattery throng to sit in the darkened Olivier feeling the cold clutch of the undead. Well, I was never that much on sitting in the sun - give me a thumping, edge-of-the-seat work of pure theatre anytime. The immersion begins even before the play starts - Underworld's unsettling, electronic soundscape plays in the foyer as you enter the Olivier (the urge to use their BORN SLIPPY track was obviously ignored!) and, as we settled into our stalls seat in the red-lit auditorium, we nervously eyed the huge bell that hung above the stalls with an actor waiting patiently underneath holding a rope! Sure enough BONG went the bell and all attention was on the circular frame that had slowly rotated on the stage showing the form of the Creature within, echoing Leonardo's Vitruvian Man.

Unlike other adaptations of Mary Shelley's novel, the story is initially told through the eyes of The Creature - from his 'birth' pangs to Victor's rejection and on to his scary first experience of the real world and the hatred of strangers. It was a hypnotic beginning and one that acclimatised you to Jonny Lee Miller's astonishing physicality as the Creature. Naked, flapping and rolling about on the Olivier stage, Miller literally threw himself into the role. It also got you accustomed to Danny Boyle's vision of the play and his full use of all physical theatre trops - lighting, sound effects, music, water and fire, all of which culminated in the thrilling appearance of a steam train - all bright lights and showers of sparks.
The story then settled down to the Creature's education at the hands of Karl Johnson's kindly blind professor, driven from his university into a rural exile by a political regime. It was the first of many reflections and echoes between characters that Nick Dear has found in the tale. Needless to say, the Creature's idyll cannot last long as the Professor's son and daughter-in-law react in horror at his appearance and he responds by wreaking revenge on the family by burning the house.

The Creature journeys to Geneva where Victor has returned to his father's house and to his fiancee Elizabeth, who he has ambivalent feelings for at best. Benedict Cumberbatch is not an actor I warm too but here his shtick of cerebrally emotional coldness was well-used as Victor. When Victor's infant brother is found murdered, he confronts his creation who presents him with an ultimatum - make him a female companion so he will know love and he will vanish from his creator's life. Initially horrified, Victor's vain-glorious ambition cannot be suppressed and he agrees to the deal, which, as we all know, leads to disaster...
I will admit that at times Nick Dear's script was alarmingly thin when it came to the supporting characters but the confrontation scenes between Cumberbatch and Miller were wonderfully vivid, owing much to the chemistry between the two actors. The fact that they are alternating the roles I suspect gives them a rare insight into the characters and each other as performers.

As I have said, of the two I found Miller absolutely thrilling. He has filled out a bit since his Sick Boy days but this solidity works well for the Creature, making him more believable as a figure of menace. He gave a nuanced performance, by turns bitter, humorous, angry and with a genuine feeling of loneliness.Karl Johnson made the most of his featured role as Professor De Lacey, just the right actor to 'settle' into the play with as his character is the first the Creature relates to after the sturm und drang of the production's opening.

Being the National we have the inevitable non-traditionalist casting which works both for and against the production. Naomie Harris brought vitality and intelligence to the role of Elizabeth - I am still haunted by the execrable performance by Helena Bonham-Carter in the misguided Branagh film - but even she can do nothing with Dear's line of "We'll have less of that" when the Creature touches her breast in the bedroom scene. Excuse the pun but there were titters.

Sadly the same cannot be said for George Harris as Victor's father. All I can say is that Victor and murdered William must both take after their mother. It's not the fact that he's black that makes him stand out, it's the fact he is so under-powered as an actor. In a fairly anonymous support cast, Ella Smith was a delight as Elizabeth's maid Clarice.

It's 15 years since Danny Boyle directed a play and it seems that he has burst back onto the stage with a fevered imagination that rarely shows in his films - THE BEACH anyone? As I said the show is a real Sensurround experience with Mark Tildesley's set, Bruno Poet's lighting and Underworld's score all contributing to the experience, but it's Danny Boyle's vision that holds it all together.How pissed must the National be that this sell-out production is only going to have a run of 3 months thanks to the lead actor's availability? I would hope that they will be able to revive it at a later date - but would it have the same impact with two other actors?

If only there was some way for Cumberbatch and Miller to be cloned... they could run it till the wheels dropped off then. Cloned... *reaches for test-tube and Bunsen burner*

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