“Frankenstein”, NT live broadcast, GFT, 14/7/12
This is a retrospective of last year’s smash Danny Boyle production which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating in the main roles as the good Doctor and the hideous Monster; this time round, Cumberbatch gets to do ugly.
Frankenstein isn’t a story I feel particularly strongly about. To me, it’s too old-fashioned, despite all the connections people make with genetic engineering. Naa… it taps in too much to the ethic of the travelling freak show for me, and it was quickly left looking outdated by the real breakthroughs in science, medicine, evolution and psychology that thundered through the rest of the 19th century.
I have to confess, too, that I don’t particularly enjoy Miller or Cumberbatch as actors; Miller has been in some clunkers like Dracula 2001, while I found the rebooted Sherlock really irritating and a terrible under-usage of the excellent Martin Freeman. I’ve also not really got into Danny Boyle films either – it’s heresy in Scotland to admit you can’t stand Trainspotting – so I have to say I wasn’t convinced I’d be blown away in the way the critics and last year’s audiences seem to have been.
However, faults aside – and there are a few – this was pretty damned good. The central role is clearly the monster, with Frankenstein reduced to a bit of a cardboard cutout sexually inadequate egomaniac. There is much to admire about Cumberbatch’s performance (and, presumably, Miller’s on the nights he got the role) in that it generates real sympathy, and there are moments when creation appears far more wise and mature and intelligent than the creator (“Don’t be so… inconsistentttt…” he admonishes the Baron at one point). In his erratic pleading and threatening and wheedling for the mate he so desperately needs to make him whole, he captures the emotional fragility of the man /child /monster very well indeed. Especially good, though, are his scenes with Karl Johnson as De Lacey, the blind, impoverished university professor who teaches him to read Paradise Lost and introduces him to the concept of morality and who inadvertently unleashes his taste for revenge.
It’s a little unfair to describe Miller as a cut-out. There is a definite sense of the maniacal self belief that he feels gives him the authority to pull everyone’s strings, including those of his fiancée Elizabeth as he baits a trap for the monster, in his barking, flat prose. The two actors obviously work well together, so much so Miller is appearing in a future Sherlock storyline.
But there are significant issues, I feel. The long opening spell, with the monster rolling around the stage as it learns to control its limbs, is overwrought and far too long. I also think it weakens the story that the Baron doesn’t appear until that process is almost over; the monster should imprint on his “master” the way a bird imprints on its mother if we are to believe his investment in and connection to Frankenstein.
In addition, the staging is far too filmy, I feel. There are big effects that are so underused they seem intrusive, especially a steam-punk train that represents the industry of the town the monster first flees too (I think) that appears onstage for about two minutes, then chugs off. Not enough bangs for very big bucks. And there are some clumsily stereotyped stagings, such as a grinding rock track to represent the city immediately followed by a pastoral choir to indicate a change of setting to a countryside complete with flocks of birds flushing from hayricks. The set is also dominated by a huge cone of lights suspended over the stage which does various things from twinkling starlight-like to burning achingly bright, and I kept being reminded of Boyle’s sci-fi acid-trip borefest Sunshine.
The central characters totally dominate the play, and so other actors don’t really get a look in. Even so, some of them don’t convince, and the part of Elizabeth is a shockingly inadequate vehicle for an actress of the quality of the beautiful Naomie Harris. Finally, there are some moments of real humour but some badly misjudged episodes, including a teeth-grindingly offensive caricature of a couple of Western Isles yokels.
All in all, though, this was a quality production that didn’t reach the heights for me that it seems to have done for many others. There is a huge number of teen thesp types in the audience tonight – I overhear one saying she hadn’t been to see anything in the theatre she wasn’t in herself for ages, and one lad goes out the door dreamily saying “Ben, what a man he is, what a man, what a man…” – and I get the sense they are encouraged here by the triumvirate of the three big names from TV and film, Boyle, Miller and Cumberbatch. That’s fine, and they all deserve big plaudits for this; but, really, they didn’t quite carry it off, I think.