Friday, 4 March 2011
FRANKENSTEIN at The National Theatre
Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein is probably the most talked about play this season, an adaptation by Nick Dear of Mary Shelley's classic novel. The central pair: creator (Victor Frankenstein) and creation are unusually cross-cast, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller playing both roles, switching each night. This is, of course to represent the cruel duo as one, though it is a strategy that causes some debate. Reviewers were invited to both alternatives to grasp the effect of the idea... Lee Miller seems to have come out on top, receiving all four star reviews. It is an interesting concept, but one that I believe can compromise the quality of a performance, after all can an actor be as convincingly in character if he is having to constantly switch. And if Lee Miller is better as the creature why not keep it that way every night? I saw him in this role and suspect it to be the preferred casting, but with not enough time to see the vice-versa line-up, I will never know.
The NT press team is not keen on niceties, with the theatre at the top of its game there is a tendency to be arrogant. They can be as brash and brutal as they want and the majority of their shows will still sell out. I experienced a curt unkind woman first hand and it rather deterred me from spending a fortune on Frankenstein tickets. I’d almost completely given up hope of seeing this heralded production when my friend mentioned the standing tickets obtainable from the box office on the day. Last minute tickets are a crafty way to secure seats in popular London theatres but usually it is necessary to queue for hours. I was sceptical that it was possible to procure tickets for Frankenstein this way, but after holding on the phone for a manageable ten minutes I was through and two minutes later I had booked and paid for two £5 standing tickets for that evening's performance - hurrah! I’m not one to update my facebook status every half hour, but my jublilation at my success lead me to notify my friends that I was one of the lucky few with a hot ticket to the latest theatrical phenomenon.
For the first ten minutes the stage belongs to ‘the Creature’. We watch a man being born out of a circular contraption that looks like the skin of a giant African drum. Once broken through he scrambles about on stage naked and dirty like a deranged toddler. With no speech, the audience watch in amazement as he thrashes himself against the floor struggling to walk; it should be painful to watch but Lee Miller acts with such realism and compassion that I began to wish the sequence would continue. Soon this spellbindingly physical scene is curtailed by a steam train rolling steadily towards the audience, and the rest of the play is underway.
We do not meet the Frankenstein family for a good while, meanwhile we see the creature acclimatising himself to the world, and with the help of a kind blind old man (beautifully played by Karl Johnson) he becomes more human, even beginning to feel emotion. Benedict Cumberbatch is immediately powerful on stage, it is something about his mannerisms and the intense furrowing of his thoughtful face.
The soundtrack accompanying the action is impressive on many levels - as you enter a heavy bell tolls in the centre of the auditorium, throughout there is melancholic guitar playing, beggars wailing a chorus and an atmospheric frequently returning melody. This reminded me of the introduction of Ave Maria, memorable but with a sadness that submerges your mind. The set has a gothic punk feel, and reminded me slightly of the expansive scenery in ENO’s Parsifal. Scene changes are frequent and swift with sets flying in and the central part of the stage rotating round, all very otherworldly. It is a tour de force from Mark Tildesley, who previously designed His Dark Materials.
The intensity of both Miller and Cumberbatch would make the show exceptional which ever way round they were playing it, but there is something about the raw energy of Miller that makes him just that bit more animalistic. The rest of the cast cannot compare, and appear a little bland against these stars, it doesn’t matter though as no-one is looking at them.
Bizarrely in the car on the way home from the National, Danny Boyle was presenting on Radio 2, so after seeing his tremendous show we listened to him interviewing too.
Call the box office after 9.30 am (on day of show) to get £5 standing tickets for Frankenstein – 0207 452 3000. And if you’re between the ages of 16-25 it is well worth signing up to the NT Entry Pass scheme - it is free to join and you can then book one of the £5 tickets allocated for all shows, and you can bring a friend along for only £7.50.