Monday, 21 February 2011

Frankenstein at The National Theatre

I was really quite excited about this play - gothic horror, impressive cast list, exciting director (Danny Boyle of Slumdog and, my favourite, 28 Days Later fame, amount others) - and it didn't disappoint. Boyle even threw in a little steam-punk styling at one point! We went to see it in preview and, at times, it did feel like some of the supporting cast weren't quite comfortable with their lines. But the overall impression was immensely enjoyable and visually stunning.

The two leads, Johnny Lee Miller (who most famously worked with Boyle before in Trainspotting) and Benedict Cumberbatch, are unusually alternating the main roles of Frankenstein and his monster. It's an interesting concept (and possible marketing strategy?!) but unless you plan on seeing it twice then it's not something most theatre goers will really get to appreciate. At the matinee on Saturday Lee was the monster and Cumberbatch the creator. This is the way round that makes the most sense to me; I can't help but think Cumberbatch little too pretty to make a good monster, but I would be interested to see what he did with it.

The play opens with the monster being 'born' out of a frame that seems to be made of taut, dried skin and which invoked, for me and not least because of the colour scheme used, Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man diagram. He then spends a good ten minutes alone on the stage, naked, going through the process of understanding his own body. At times, he's like a baby - his toes go into his mouth, he rocks back and forth trying to get to his feet, but at other points it seems horribly painful and hard to watch. This sets the scene for the whole play, though, the struggle of the monster to understand what he is, what he should do, and to try and rationalise humanity.

The film differs a lot from the book. Of course. The main difference I felt was that both main characters were far less sympathetic and human than in the novel. Frankenstein is an arrogant and unfeeling genius without the saving grace of his love for his friends and fiancĂ©e, I don't think we see him interacting 'humanly' with other people at any point. Similarly, his monster is far quicker to move from innocence to vengeance and seems almost predisposed to chaos as he murders the farming family who reject him and intentionally, rather than accidentally as in the novel, kills a young boy.

My only gripe, and I'm not sure whether it's a major one, is that the monster wasn't hideous enough. I was about two thirds of the way back, and did have my contacts in, but all I could see of his 'deformities' were scars that, whilst unpleasant, didn't make him seem inhuman. I felt that, every time a character recoiled in horror, I had to imagine what they were seeing. I'm not entirely sure what could have been done to add to his monstrousness; the part was beautifully acted and the way Miller carried himself was indeed inhuman and disturbing at times. Shelley's novel describes the monster as having 'yellow skin [that] scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries below' so possibly something more to alter the skin, make him look like he'd been stitched together from dead flesh? But maybe this was partially intentional, to draw more attention to the similarities between the creator and creation rather than  presenting them as opposites?

Overall it's a very impressive play and raises the questions about humanity, creation, about making judgements based on appearances, and about inclusiveness that are present in the novel, and which are still entirely relevant today.

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