A filmed production of The National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein aired at City Screen last night, and the audience witnessed a play as spectacular and astonishing as the hype surrounding its release a few months back promised. While spectacular in its ambitious set design and extravagant visuals, it was also astonishing in its vigorous presentation of the Creature as the protagonist rather than Victor Frankenstein.
The production is notorious for the alternating roles of the two protagonists, and the version screened had Benedict Cumberbatch playing the Creature and Johnny Lee Miller as Frankenstein. From the opening scene, a prolonged sequence in which the Creature is ‘born’, it becomes swiftly apparent that he rather than Frankenstein will be at the heart of the adaptation. The scene itself is the most memorable of the play, a writhing, wordless performance in which the Creature accustoms itself to life outside of its womb-like object of creation, portraying the pained ecstasy of entering the world as a fully grown human being. Cumberbatch delivers this scene engrossingly, displaying remarkable physical dedication to compliment the later growth of his character’s intellect.
One of the play’s intentions was to move away from the notion of the Creature as a simple monster, and instead give him ‘a voice’. After initially being rejected and scorned by the people he meets, the Creature finds an old blind man willing to look after and educate him, and he soon learns to read books rather than try to eat them. His ‘voice’ is enhanced again by Cumberbatch’s captivating delivery and a script willing to intelligently explore the meaty themes of Mary Shelly’s original book: the boundaries of science, what it means to create life, what it means to be human, and even a possible feminist subtext are all on display.
Nick Dear’s writing is complimented by Danny Boyle’s direction, which is as colourful and lively as you’d expect from the man at the helm of the films Trainspotting, 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire. He makes full use of the large stage in set pieces such as early on where a steam train is shown noisily crossing, and the set includes a resplendent, chandelier-esque array of lights that burst into life intermittently. Similarly to his films, he at times manages to find humour in the most unlikely of places, but whereas they can be called optimistic, taking on the themes of heroin addiction, poverty and cutting off your own arm, this is altogether more sombre in tone.
Given the relative disappointment of that other recent much-publicised work Prometheus, it’s good to see a more focussed exploration into the relationship between the creator and the created. The National Theatre's Frankenstein is a must for anyone interested in the book and its grand literary themes, and for those enchanted by exuberant explorations of the possibilities of theatre.
To find a screening of Frankenstein near you, click here.