Monday, 2 May 2011

Frankenstein at the London National Theatre

People were taking in the late afternoon sun outside The National Theatre
There is something I need to get off my chest first regarding Danny Boyle's Frankenstein: the nudity.

The play opens with the birth - or emergence - of the Creature made by the 'mad' scientist, Victor Frankenstein. The Creature performs a series of very impressive physical moves  - naked. This sequence which lasts for some ten, fifteen minutes, has the actor lying face down on the floor with his legs spread, or standing fully doubled over with his back to the audience, or running around the stage in elation at being able to move. It's a beautiful and demanding part to play, and on the night we went we were lucky enough to have Benedict Cumberbatch do it. He and Jonny Lee Miller take turns between the roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein, and I've heard Miller is excellent too.

Cumberbatch and Miller Photo

The nudity was full on; the audience got to see every intimate detail of Mr Cumberbatch's fit body. Sex sells tickets, so sadly nudity scenes are often included in plays when there is absolutely no need for them, but here the play very much demanded it. And watching Cumberbatch struggling to 'come alive' naked wasn't at all sexy. At times it was painful, at times funny and at times sad, but never titillating.

The whole of the naked opening sequence set the scene for the dark themes that the play examined, and the tragic fate that the 'unnatural' creation of life brought everyone who came into contact with the Creature.

Miller's Frankenstein, the clever, but slightly autistic scientist, is in trouble from the start: he is the first human to reject the Creature and abandons him. After being beaten up by other humans he comes in contact with, the Creature finally finds someone who can accept him; a blind, retired teacher. The kind old man gives him language and teaches him human emotions such as love and longing. Here I think the script excels, suddenly the Creature becomes more articulate and deeper thinking than his teacher, 'Why can't I be King?' he asks. The poor teacher has no answer apart from assurances that one day he will be happy. This simple question echoes the changing times that the play is set in, 'Why aren't all men equal?' 

However, the teacher's family cannot accept the Creature and instil in him the one emotion that he comes to trust more than any other; hate. But first a beautiful dream gives him hope and the Creature decides to look for his creator, Frankenstein. If some-one is capable of loving him, or giving him some-one - a female Creature - to love, surely it should be his own creator?

Things go from bad to worse for both the Creature and Frankenstein, and while the plot thickens the audience is held on the edge of their seats. The play is nearly two and a half hours long and has no interval, and it could have done with a break. But I can see why Boyle decided not to put one in - the tension of the plot would have suffered from a break. 

This was a big spectacle of a play, with the set design playing almost as a large a part as the two leading men. There was a locomotive, real flames, rain, snow. Sets emerged from the floor, they were lowered down from the ceiling and appeared from the wings. There was  a church bell which made many in the audience jump (me included) when it was rung in the stalls even before the curtain went up. Though there were no curtains; the technology in theatres these days has all but made such an old-fashioned device obsolete.

The cast too, was on a grand scale; the company included nearly twenty actors. All of whom were expertly directed by Danny Boyle. And there's a rare thing - the acting, the set design as well as the script were working together in such unison that I didn't think about them as separate parts. I accepted the locomotive as a sign of the industrial revolution with its effects on the social structure, without it disrupting the flow of the play. The passing of time, and the change of seasons, were also cleverly woven into the script and the set design.

I completely suspended disbelief.

I wasn't alone in being bowled over by Frankenstein. On the night we went the company got a standing ovation - and rightly so. A woman sitting in front of us was sobbing and there were tears in the eyes of Miller and Cumberbatch when they accepted the applause. It was magical night at the theatre.

Frankenstein, a new play by Nick Dear based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Directed by Danny Boyle
The National Theatre, South Bank, London
Running time about two hours with no interval

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