Operating theatre: Boyle’s Frankenstein previewed

Promo image for Danny Boyle's FrankensteinTheatre isn’t really within the remit of this site – the clue is in the name – but I wanted to share a few thoughts (spoilerish ones, so be warned) about Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein, which I saw at the National Theatre on Monday. The play, written by Nick Dear, is still in its preview stage at the moment – press screenings follow later in the month, and the official premiere happens on 24 February – but what I saw appeared to be pretty well formed.

Famously, the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his creature will be alternated across the run. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller will be taking it in turns to portray the scientist and his experiment. The preview info didn’t state who would be playing which role on which day – you paid your money and took your chance – but I hoped I’d get to see Cumberbatch as Frankenstein, the creator. I wanted to see my favourite of the two actors playing a man, rather than a monster. After all, Victor would be the more interesting role, wouldn’t it?

As it happened, no. This was largely the creature’s story. Apart from a brief appearance at the end of the first scene, Victor Frankenstein was absent from the first half of the play, which began with the birth of the creature from a piece of womb-like, early 19th-century apparatus on an otherwise bare stage. As lightning struck – from an impressive but bizarre-looking angled lighting rig that hung partly over the audience – the experiment flopped out of the man-made womb, naked as a newborn, and over the course of about 15 minutes writhed, wriggled and flapped its way around the stage, trying to figure out how its body worked; the only sounds were those it made.

For me, this scene was never bettered. A single actor, on stage with literally nothing to hide behind – neither music nor set; not even a set of clothes – was totally lost in his character, performing all kinds of physical and emotional acrobatics with no self-consciousness at all. I was mesmerised, and I enjoyed the tension it created: the feeling that the audience were an inch away from nervous laughter. I imagine that will happen at some performances, but I wouldn’t consider it a failing if it does. An annoyance? Perhaps.

Benedict Cumberbatch – oh yes, it was him, the guy I didn’t want to see done up as a monster – turned in an astonishing performance as the creature. From its painful creation, through its discovery of the natural world and its tutoring by the blind De Lacey (a solid turn from Karl Johnson), to its pleading, its philosophising and, ultimately, its revenge on its father for its abandonment and loneliness, this was a devastating portrayal of a character that has often had short shrift. In cinema at least, Frankenstein’s monster has rarely had so much to say, literally and otherwise.

Promo image for Danny Boyle's FrankensteinThe trouble with this stand-out performance, though, was that it pushed many other cast members into the shadows. The scenes that didn’t feature Cumberbatch felt rather flat. Even Jonny Lee Miller only really sparked when sharing the stage with his co-star. Was this a side-effect of telling the creature’s story? Or was Cumberbatch just working much harder than everybody else?

Though much of the play’s staging is impressionistic – for example, a single strip of grass substitutes a field – I found it surprisingly easy to buy the sets for what they were meant to be. And there were moments of spectacle, such as the torching of the De Laceys’ home, and the train that thundered towards the audience, sparks flying from its wheels.

There was a bit of Grand-Guignol, too, with the gory reveal of Frankenstein’s second experiment. The play’s big shock moment – during which cries of fright rang out from the right of the audience – didn’t fully work for me, though my biggest disappointment was that I couldn’t see what happened at the back of the stage at the very end of the play. In theory, my seat, in the front row of the circle about a third of the way along from the left, should have provided a great view of everything, but sadly the final scene finished early for me. I only knew that it was truly over when the audience started applauding.

My verdict, then? For me, the lure of Frankenstein was threefold: its subject matter, its director and its leads. I’m not a seasoned theatre-goer, so I can’t view it in the context of similar productions. All I can really say is that I enjoyed this preview, despite its flaws. The enjoyment I got from Benedict Cumberbatch’s show-stealing performance made it worth seeing. For me, this was where the real lightning struck.

Frankenstein is on now at the National Theatre, London. It’s sold out until the end of April, but bookings for May will reportedly begin in March. The play can also be seen in selected cinemas worldwide on 17 and 24 March. Check National Theatre Live for details.

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