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Review: Frankenstein @ National Theatre, 24 February 2011

For those of you who aren't aware, there's a new stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (written by Nick Dear; directed by Danny Boyle) currently running at the National Theatre here in London. It's been in the press mostly because Benedict Cumberbatch (of Sherlock fame) and Jonny Lee Miller (of Trainspotting fame) alternate the roles of Victor and the Creature night by night. On the night I saw it, Benedict played the Creature; I'm hoping to get cinema tickets to the 24 March live broadcast so that I can see the roles reversed.

This is, simply put, the best piece of live theater I've seen since the 2005 Shakespeare On the Common production of Hamlet (Boston, Massachusetts USA). Imagine a show where the clockwork is so tight that not a single element seems out of place: not the sets, not the lighting, not the sound effects, not the costumes, not the staging, not the acting, nothing. I can't think of a single weak link, and that in and of itself is remarkable, as, for every other piece of live theater I've seen (except the 2005 Hamlet), I've had plenty of criticisms to level.

Let's start with the cast: Cumberbatch and Miller aren't the only big hitters present. I was delighted to see Karl Johnson (PC Bob Walker in Hot Fuzz; Cato in Rome) as De Lacey; he brought both gravitas and genuine warmth to the role. George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; Osman Atto in Black Hawk Down) brought an understated, loving authority to Victor Frankenstein's father. Naomie Harris (Tia Dalma/Calypso in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy; Selena in 28 Days Later) was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of all; her portrayal of Elizabeth is intelligent, compassionate, and full of subtle wit. William Nye, in the role of Victor's younger brother William, gives a performance as memorable as those of the experienced adult actors around him.

As the Creature, Cumberbatch runs such an astonishing gamut of nuances that I'm not sure where to begin. Without giving too much away, I'll say this: the role is the most physically demanding I've seen outside the realms of ballet and opera. Aside from spending the first twenty or so minutes of the show stark naked (save for the gruesome, ingenious disfigurement of full body make-up), the gymnastics routine of the Creature learning how to use its physical faculties alone is worth the price of admission. I can't imagine what kind of painstaking choreography it must have taken to set the opening few scenes in perfect order, and I don't want to imagine what sorts of interesting bumps, bruises, and other injuries both Cumberbatch and Miller must surely have sustained in the process. It's as enthralling to watch as it must be grueling to perform. The creature's progress from newborn to educated genius perhaps over-fond of Paradise Lost is perfectly paced. Cumberbatch switches from guileless to deceptive to menacing with what seems like no effort at all. Of all the various versions (mostly film) that I've seen of Frankenstein over the years, his creature comes closest to what I envisioned when I first read the novel as an undergraduate.

In the same vein, Miller as Victor is every bit the self-absorbed, arrogant, yet somehow likeable twat that I imagined as I was reading. To portray that kind of intense, singleminded obsession must be every bit as taxing as executing the physical demands of playing the Creature, and Miller definitely succeeds. I've heard via other reviews that his take on the Creature is much more threatening than Cumberbatch's, and to imagine a threat greater than Cumberbatch's Creature at its most tortured is mind-boggling to say the least. However, I found myself most struck by the coldness of Miller's Victor; it's this element that I'd never quite imagined in reading the character, but it makes complete sense in context. This Victor doesn't just flee his creation in horror; he flees because he can't really be arsed to care. And he certainly doesn't care as much for Elizabeth as he cares for his own brilliance.

A word on the sets: if they'd been any better, they would've upstaged the cast. The only previous use of a revolving stage I'd ever seen was in Les Misérables, and the use to which they've put one here is stunning. A double-sided architectural piece rises from the middle and revolves several times throughout the production, serving here as the Frankenstein residence, there as Victor's laboratory, and all of a sudden vanishing to produce an abyss high in the mountains above Geneva or a fissure in the Antarctic ice. A series of what look like blown-glass ornaments are suspended above the stage and run along the central walkway extending out into the audience; these prove to be a host of light-bulbs used to absolutely demonic effect throughout the production. Nothing I'm saying here can reproduce how clever and versatile the schematics really are.

If you can manage to see this, via broadcast or by somehow snagging tickets, do.

- Coda: Reverse Cast Review, 24 March 2011 -

I'm seeing it on April 10 - same casting as you saw. thank you for posting this - very exciting.

I assume you'll post your own reaction, so I can't wait to hear what you think of it!

I am desperately hoping that the filming does the staging justice. I've been enthralled by descriptions of it.

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ajodasso Expand
ajodasso Expand
Damn, Karl Johnson is in it as well? Now I wish I could justify the expense even more than I did already...

Yep! I was surprised and delighted.

Oh, this sounds wonderful. I've just been invited to go watch it with some friends at the Shakespeare Theater Company in DC for a screening event-- I'll be seeing it with the main roles reversed; don't know if it'll be the same full cast, however.

And here I thought I was excited about seeing this before. I'm brimming over with anticipation now. April 23rd can't come soon enough.

I have not heard about this production, the curses of being an ocean away. However, I can say that I've seen a revolving stage used twice. Les Misérables as well as Lord of the Rings. The production sounds wonderful, I do hope to find a broadcast of it somewhere.

If you go to the National Theatre website, there's a directory that helps you find broadcast sites near you :)

I'm afraid I have to hate you, because I'm on completely the wrong side of the world to see this. Hopefully torrents will hit the web if it does get broadcast somewhere, because it's at times like this that I'm never more acutely aware that Nothing Comes To Australia. Well, except Stephen Fry. *hearts him*

*uses marginally appropriate icon*

iamshadow Expand
iamshadow Expand
ajodasso Expand
I need to see this somehow. Do you know any details about the broadcast? I'm sure I can find it online.

Go to the National Theatre's website, and click on your country's map to see when it will be broadcast in your area, and in which movie theaters. It's all through March and April, depending on where you live.

hollsh Expand
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RE injuries: Ben has a sprained ankle, sprained wrist, there’s a back spasm or six going on there, cuts and bruises everywhere and his feet are a wreck, plus he’s sick now to. I’d say Jonny isn't too much better for it either. Got to admit, I was slightly surprised at the Paradise Lost appearance, but I haven't read the book (swear to god I shall soon!) and I don't know it really, as I was never taught it.

Oooh, can’t wait now! seeing it in Queens Film Theatre in Belfast on March 17th. Just pissed that I won’t be able to ring that AWESOME SOUNDING BELL everyone’s been talking about that’s at the NT for it!

Jonny sounded quite hoarse on the night, so I wouldn't be surprised to hear he's ill, too. Both roles are incredibly demanding, but the Creature especially so.

I am gutted I won't be able to see this live! I'm so pleased for you; I would have stalked the site to get tickets if there was any physical chance of me getting over there. Sigh. Let's hope they release the filmed version on DVD so I can at least watch it!

I'm hoping for a double-disc set with both versions :)

Thanks for the brilliant review. I've only read the book, have managed to stay away from the films more or less, and from what I hear this production is more faithful to the book than anything else. This pleases me. I can't wait till I get to see it myself :)

I'd say it's the most faithful to the book of all the adaptations I've seen, anyway :) It pleases me, too!

I booked my ticket back in January, and having read several glowing reviews, I'm so glad I did! Interestingly, many critics seem to have a slight preference for Miller as the Creature, but personally, I'm far more interested in seeing Cumberbatch in that role because it's so different from anything else he's done. I'd imagine his physique is well suited for it, too.

Thanks for the excellent review, I can't wait for the 15th March, which is when I'm going. :)

I haven't read any of the critics' reviews, yet; I probably won't do so till after 24 March, when I'm seeing the broadcast of Miller as the creature.

Ahhh, this makes me so excited. I'm seeing both screenings in March, and since I work at the hosting theatre, I get in for free :D Your review hit all the right notes -- the sets! Benny! Relationship to the text (which I've just read)! I am so very excited to see it.

Edited at 2011-02-27 03:33 pm (UTC)

I got tickets to the broadcast of Miller as the Creature on 24 March, so I'm excited that I'll be able to compare their performances :)

This sounds truly awesome. I'm so excited!

mistyzeo Expand
ajodasso Expand
I've got a ticket to the Seattle screening in April, presented as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. I don't know which casting the filmed version has. I hope it has BC as Frankenstein, now that I've read your review.

I'm excited!

ETA: Pass the word on other US screenings of Frankenstein: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/61172/venues-amp-booking/usa-venues.html

Edited at 2011-02-27 08:03 pm (UTC)

Thanks for the link; I'll direct people looking for info here :)

The live performance on March 17th is being shown at our local cinema and the reverse role performance is being shown a week later. I had been wondering whether or not to go (not easy to get home so late) but you've convinced me to make the effort. Thanks for the review :)

Go to both if you can, would be my advice; I've managed to get tickets to a 24 March broadcast so that I can see the roles reversed!