Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Frankenstein" (NT Live) - March 2011

The National Theatre's production of "Frankenstein" starring Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, directed by Danny Boyle has been one of London's hottest theatre tickets in recent months; so we weren't alone in being grateful for the opportunity to see it on the GFT screen as part of the NT Live scheme. The demand for tickets was inflated further through the gimmick high concept decision to have Miller and Cumberbatch alternate roles on a nightly basis between Frankenstein and the Creature which left many wanting to see both versions. And although we really enjoyed it, I'm just not sure it merits a return visit.

We won't rehash the debate about how well the whole NT Live thing works as we've covered all that before when we saw "Phedre" - it suffices to say that we're wholeheartedly in favour of it as a way of enabling us to see productions we would never get the chance to see. I'll just add that in some respects Boyle's direction of the show seemed well suited to the cinematic transfer but some of his more striking moments probably really have to be experienced first hand.

By the time we saw the show, we knew we would be seeing Miller as Victor Frankenstein and Cumberbatch as the Creature - which Waldorf had already decreed to be 'the wrong way round'. However, the show changed our opinions on that - but perhaps not quite as you may expect. And that was only the start of our disagreements about this show.

I quickly found Cumberbatch's creature to be lacking in subtlety - perhaps due to the camera zooming in for a performance designed to be viewed from a distance. Waldorf on the other hand loved his performance and was distinctly unimpressed by Miller's portrayal of Frankenstein, who I had thought excellent. And it wasn't enough for either of us to simply see the 'reverse' casting - I wanted to see Miller play both roles simultaneously and Waldorf wanted to see Cumberbatch do the same. But that might be an ask too far even for a director of Boyle's talent.

We also couldn't agree on the production's prolonged opening sequence as the creature is 'born' and gradually gains control of his body. For me this was unbearably long and I just wanted it to start already while Waldorf found it an important part of the character's development.

Our other significant disagreement was over the colourblind casting of Victor's family. I'm all for playing individual characters against 'expectations' as to their race but they should retain the relationship between characters. Without explanation of adoption or a step-relationship it was impossible for me to accept them as a family unit, particularly given the accents involved, which left me struggling to feel the pain the characters are put through. Waldorf again disagreed - not caring about the racial identities and more concerned by what she considered a poor performance by George Harris as Frankenstein Sr.

In fact, just about the only thing we do agree on is that we both really enjoyed it. And to cap it all Waldorf has just disagreed once more with my earlier statement and insists it would be worth a return visit - although sadly time won't permit one. It might not have succeeded in connecting with either of us emotionally but as a piece of spectacular storytelling it's hard to beat.

There is an NT Live broadcast featuring Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Victor on 24th March which will also be shown for a number of 'repeat' performances. The production at the National Theatre runs until 2nd May but advance tickets are sold out - a limited number of day tickets are available.
Image by Catherine Ashmore used with permission.

2 Heckles

tom grimes said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the show, Miller played it very straight as the doctor and I would have preferred to see Cumberbatch in this role as I cannot imagine him not doing it without exerting his personality in the role.

I love the set up where we can see the characters much closer than you would in the theatre.

E said...

I saw it the other way around, with Cumberbatch as the Doctor and Miller as the Creature. And though this was nearly seven months ago, I still can't think of it any other way.

I enjoyed the opening sequence greatly. I thought that it was cinematic and totally serving the work's purposes.

I agree also with the sentiment expressed to George Harris's performance as Frankenstein Sr. More than his race, what stood out to me was the pretty bad acting.

What was the show's biggest flaw, I think, was the weak script by Nick Dear. The potent source material was distilled and cartoonish at points, particularly when it came to Victor's characterization. That's what was missing for me, a little bit of balance.