It’s the hottest ticket in town. Queues reach outside the National Theatre for day tickets or returns and five star gushing reviews fill the arts pages. Directed by Danny Boyle, who gave us the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionare and Trainspotting, a spectacle is almost guaranteed. Plus, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller swapping roles as the creature and Victor Frankenstein, this is not a production lacking in ambition, nor expectation.
Frankenstein is the latest in this season’s National Theatre Live which sees productions beamed direct from the stage in the South Bank to cinemas across the country. Picturehouse at FACT’s Screen 1 hosts the show in Liverpool. For the cinema at least it’s proving not only to be a money-spinner but a chance to encourage those who may not usually be tempted in by the arthouse or independent films on show. It’s a more diverse audience taking to their seats.
The frisson of excitement you feel ahead of a stage production, rarely replicated in a cinema auditorium, is tangible and for a second it feels surprising. Yet I’m twenty minutes from my front door and I’m about to watch the most talked about play in the capital. What’s not to be excited about?
This show has Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature – next week he’ll step into Victor’s shoes while Johnny Lee Miller becomes the childlike monster so it is impossible to offer a comparison of the two.
It begins in darkness. The creature is ‘born’ feeling and reaching its way out of a womb-like sack. For ten minutes, Cumberbatch writhes and twitches in a physical and disturbing display as the creature tests the limits of his movement, begins to stand. A light display of torches flashes brightly intermittently. Like a toddler he pads and explores his way around the stage picking up pace. There is no holding back. From beginning to end, as the creature Cumberbatch is like a force of nature.
Mutilated and horrific to look at, the actor has described how he studied stroke victims and those forced to relearn how to speak, walk and move after a trauma. In the hands of any other actor this performance might feel trite, forced and too determined. In Cumberbatch’s hands his sense of struggle, his desperation to learn, yet constantly being thwarted by cruelness – whether by another’s hand or his own – means he is as bound by the limits of his body as he is by society’s unwillingness to welcome him to the fold. His scream as he is rejected by De Lacey’s son and daughter in law is full throttled and anguished. His rage as he burns their home to the ground makes you want to cover your eyes from the horror.
Danny Boyle has said his production aims to give the creature back his voice. The 1930’s Universal turned the monster into a silent victim. Theatrical and iconic, yes, but Boris Karloff’s creature lacked depth. Here, the creature’s journey from childlike enthusiast whooping in the snow and delightedly chasing birds to maniacally declaring he is a man after he rapes and murders Elizabeth in-front of a harrowed Victor, is not only believeable, but you can even empathise. Shelley’s novel is always relevant, says Boyle, it can fit to a discussion about genetics, about the reach of man. Here it feels like a treatise on how we treat outsiders, how do we treat those who look and behave differently from the perceived norm.
Miller as Frankenstein is cold and cruel. He is distant and inhuman, in stark contrast to a family that feels permeated by warmth and fun, until hit by tragedy. It’s a rigid performance that allows Cumberbatch’s mania to run free.
The only thing that lets this production down is at times the script is a little trite. After the wrought, raw emotion of the last two hours, the end feels a little like a whimper, a little too uncertain. There’s no sense of who has the control by the end. The passage of time between Victor and Elizabeth’s fateful wedding night and the next time we see the creature isn’t made clear. It jars to have felt so intimate with both the creature’s mind and Victor’s that now we feel unsure as to where they will go next. Similarly for those used to seeing stage production, having the camera produce shots from above the action, as well as from the stalls might take a little getting used to.
But these are minor criticisms. It is a staggering production. And to see it live in the cinema feels like a privilege, as though we have sneaked in to the back of the theatre and are spying from the wings. Next week, FACT shows the reverse cast production. Book it, book it now.
Review by Laura M Brown