Adapted by Nick Dear, realised by Danny Boyle.The National Theatre, London
Danny Boyle- English filmmaker – of Slumdog and Trainspotting fame- returned to the theatre in what was being hailed as a radical re-imagining of this classic gothic tale. Famous actors Benedict Cumberpatch and Johnny Lee Miller were cast to alternatively play the Creature and Dr. Frankenstein and acclaimed electronic duo Underworld were set to create a soundtrack.
It all sounded great, funding was thrown at it, and the National Theatre primed Frankenstein as the big theatrical ‘event’ that would begin their year. But what this production revealed to me was that despite an all-star cast and Oscar-winning director, fundamentally you need a good script.
Every other aspect of this production was faultless. The lighting was entrancing and the staging was creative and cleverly designed for seamless scene changes. Aesthetically it was an amazing production; from the spark-throwing abstract industrialist steam train to the primitive sun salutation, which involved paper birds being flung skyward as Frankenstein innocently experienced nature.
The opening scene was particularly memorable, for many reasons. As the audience settled an ominous bell knelled through the auditorium warning of the terribleness of the soon-to-emerge creature. Jonny Lee Miller broke through a membranous womb-like cell and flopped on to the stage. The first ten minutes of the play (unbelievably this scene was 20 minutes long in the preview!) involved a perverse distortion of a bambi on ice sequence where the creature gained self-awareness and literally found its legs. It was definitely a protracted scene; Miller twitched and spasmed fully naked whilst making grunting sounds as ‘it’ discovered its vocal chords and bodily movement. This worked for a few minutes…but when the creature began doing full laps of the stage, screaming, for some people, namely my mother, the scene had descended into farce. Whilst I have a terribly English stiff upper lip, my mum resorted to putting her head between her knees and massaging her temples to avoid angry serious theatre-goers stares.
My mother was not the only one having to restrain laughter; people seemed to be laughing inappropriately at various points in the play. One of my major critiques of the script was that it had cheap, often sexist gags about places or people that were placed jarringly within the dialogue. There were really only two characters in the play, the creature and Dr. Frankenstein. And they were fantastic. However their parts only served to highlight how two-dimensional and unconvincing the supporting characters were. The two main female figures, the farmer’s wife and Frankenstein’s wife were infuriatingly simple and conservative- spouting very male-centric banal lines about love and life. Frankenstein’s wife who was such a drip, who for some, unexplained reason was going ahead with marrying the aloof, disinterested medic, whined about being unloved and not the object of Victor Frankenstein’s sexual desire. It almost led me to be grateful she received a bit of physical attention from the Creature in, again a rather unfortunately farcical, rape scene.
A further source of unintentional comedy was the vast cultural disparity in accents, between Victor Frankenstein and his father. In many play’s I have seen differing ethnicity doesn’t affect a spectator’s ability to believe familial relationships. However the disparity between Bendict Cumberpatch’s Queen’s English and the strong Caribbean accent of George Harris, who played his Swiss father was quite funny and involved suspense of belief and credulity.
All the actors, particularly Jonny Lee miller, were fantastic. This production did not suffer from bad acting but essentially from a poor script. The themes the interpretation raised were emotive and interesting, particularly the decision to tell the tale from the creature’s perspective. Regardless of the company’s talent and Boyle’s artistic direction, ultimately, this production proved that you cannot successfully go from page to stage without having a decent script to work from.