Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Frankenstein (2011 National Theatre)

The 2011 National Theatre production of Frankenstein was written by Nick Dear and directed by the Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle. The play starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller who would alternate the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on consecutive nights. According to everyone involved this was intended to highlight the connection between the creator and his creation. Cumberbatch and Miller both won a joint Olivier Award in 2012 for their efforts. Now of course they're both playing Sherlock Holmes! Benedict Cumberbatch plays the character in the BBC's Sherlock and Jonny Lee Miller plays the character in CBS's Elementary.

Frankenstein picked up almost universally glowing reviews and was completely sold out during its run. Tickets for the play were the hottest in town. In 2011 the National Theatre made the decision to film the play twice and screen it into cinemas, and as these screenings were so popular they replayed them again in 2012 and 2013. Thousands of people from all over the world who would never have gotten the chance to see the stage production have now been able to enjoy it, including myself for which I'm extremely grateful! I've now seen Frankenstein twice. I saw Frankenstein for the first time on this past Halloween. The audience was packed and there was an electric atmosphere! Everyone in the audience seemed to love it and there was such a buzz at the end. You know when you've just seen a really great movie and you can hear everyone talking about how great it was as you walk out? It was like that. I always love it when that happens. The first screening I saw had Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I saw Frankenstein for the second time on the 21st of November. The roles were reversed so I then got to see Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Miller as the Creature. The audience wasn't as packed for this second viewing but there were still quite a few people there. I didn't sense as much of a buzz from the audience this time around but people still seemed to really enjoy it.

Because the story of Frankenstein is so universally well-known I don't really feel that I need to cover its plot in very much depth. There will be spoilers in this review but I'm just going to cut straight into my opinion of the play. Well, I was completely blown away by Frankenstein! It's been over seven years since I last read the Mary Shelley novel and I didn't really like the book all that much anyway. For a classic novel I don't consider Shelley's novel to be especially well-written. But this play... oh my word! I was completely mesmerised by this production and the 2 hours and 15 minutes of it just flew by. It's dramatic and thrilling and a wonderful production! There's a surprising amount of comic relief in the play as well. Although Frankenstein is very dark in many respects it's also extremely funny in places. On both of the occasions that I saw it it got so many laughs from the audience! The play is incredibly beautiful to look at too. It's a visually stunning production. The lighting, staging and make-up in this play is simply fantastic. There's some very haunting music as well. Frankenstein was Danny Boyle's last directing job before he earned his national treasure status for directing the amazing 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and many consider Boyle's Frankenstein to be a precursor to his Olympics opening ceremony.

The National Theatre has no current plans to release Frankenstein onto DVD and I think that's a shame. Although seeing this play at the cinema was an amazing experience releasing it on DVD would make it more accessible. I'm sure it would be a huge hit. It seems pretty likely that the National Theatre intends to keep doing annual cinema screenings for the foreseeable future though. If the play gets shown again in 2014 then I would strongly urge anybody reading this to go and see both of the Frankenstein screenings if possible. If you can only see one version though - and you'd better have a good excuse! - then the version that I'd personally recommend is the one that has Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I mean this with no disrespect towards Jonny Lee Miller because I think he's an excellent actor. He made for such a wonderful Mr Knightley in Emma and he's now my favourite actor to have played that particular role. However I thought Benedict Cumberbatch was better in both of the two Frankenstein roles. Admittedly I am a huge Benedict Cumberbatch fan but I've tried to be objective in this review and I do honestly believe that he was better than Miller. I'll start with his portrayal of the Creature because I was astonished by his performance! Cumberbatch brings a huge amount of emotion to the Creature but is also much more agile and powerful in the role than Jonny Lee Miller. He brings an incredible amount of energy to the role. His Creature's movements are very slow and awkward when we first see him but as the play continues his Creature gains far better control over his limbs. He climbs, runs and jumps around the stage with extraordinary ease. This makes his Creature far more otherworldly. The sheer physicality that Cumberbatch brings to the role is amazing. I wasn't surprised to find out that he does yoga in real life! Cumberbatch gets to use his very impressive vocal talents in the role as well - those bird noises!

Jonny Lee Miller's performance as the Creature is a huge contrast to Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal. Benedict Cumberbatch watched videos of stroke and accident victims recovering the use of their limbs in preparation for the Creature; Miller based many of his Creature's mannerisms from his then two year old son. It's not really surprising then that Miller's Creature is much more childlike and vulnerable than Cumberbatch's. His Creature is very much a child or an underdeveloped adult inside. After the birthing scene Miller's Creature even picks up his foot, puts into his mouth, and chews on it like a baby. Jonny Lee Miller's interpretation of the Creature is an interesting alternative to Benedict Cumberbatch's and is a completely valid portrayal. Miller had some great moments in the role - like his Creature's reaction to snow and the scene where the Creature meets his "bride". I liked Miller's Creature more than his Victor but ultimately I still prefer Benedict Cumberbatch's Creature over Miller's. With Miller's Creature I felt like I was watching a person that just so happens to be ugly whereas Cumberbatch's Creature was definitely not human. I found Cumberbatch's interpretation of the Creature much more interesting. I have another reason for preferring Cumberbatch's Creature over Miller's as well: I found him more sympathetic. This is mainly because of how Cumberbatch plays the scene where the Creature rapes Victor's wife Elizabeth. When Cumberbatch's Creature apologises to Elizabeth for what he's about to do he seems genuinely remorseful. His voice trembles and there are tears in his eyes. He still goes through with the rape as an act of revenge upon Victor but it's clear that this act pains him. It's different with Miller's Creature. His Creature still apologises to Elizabeth beforehand but there aren't any tears in his eyes and his delivery is more matter-of-fact. He only seems to be saying it because he feels like it's something that he should be saying. Miller's Creature seems to be taking pleasure from the rape as well. Having said though the rape scene is still tastefully handled in both of the filmed versions. It's still a disturbing and uncomfortable scene to watch in the filmed versions - as it should be - but it isn't at all graphic and is very brief. It only lasts for about 10 seconds. Miller's Creature doesn't show any genuine remorse for his actions until the final scene.

Since I've covered how Cumberbatch and Miller choose to interpret the Creature I guess it's time for me to cover how they play Victor Frankenstein. Well, once again Miller is very good but I preferred Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of the character. I see Victor as being the true villain of the story and I can't say that I actually like his character but Cumberbatch was able to make me feel more sympathy for Victor than Miller did. Cumberbatch's Victor is more affectionate towards his younger brother William and - unlike Miller's Victor - I actually got the sense that he did care for his fiancée. Cumberbatch still plays Victor's arrogance extremely well though! I loved it when his Victor talks about the people of Geneva being little people with little lives. I can't even remember Miller's Victor saying this line but Cumberbatch's Victor spits it out with real venom! Also the scene where Cumberbatch's Victor screams "My mind is superb!" to his father is a really powerful moment.

If Frankenstein has a fault it's that the play is just so focused on Victor Frankenstein and the Creature that none of the other supporting characters are terribly well-developed or get very much stage time. Victor and the Creature dominate the whole play, although their scenes are so electrifying to watch I didn't really mind this to be honest! I especially loved their final scene together. Most of the supporting actors are really very good despite their limited stage time as well. Karl Johnson gives an absolutely lovely performance as a blind old man called De Lacey, Naomie Harris and Ella Smith are both very good, and two Scottish fisherman called Ewan and Rabb (John Stahl and Mark Armstrong) got lots of laughs from the audience."Oh, I don't loike the souuuuund o'that!" In fact the only actor I didn't like so much in Frankenstein was George Harris as Victor's father. His Caribbean accent was quite jarring and he didn't have any chemistry with either Jonny Lee Miller or Benedict Cumberbatch.

Because I enjoyed this adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein so much I've actually taken my review of the book down. I plan on re-reading it next year and I'm hoping that I'll get more out of it. Anyway, as far as I'm concerned this play is magnificent and I loved it. You can get a good idea of what this play is like from the trailer I've embedded below. Hopefully I'll be seeing it again next year and I'll be sure to keep an eye on the National Theatre website, which I already do anyway. I've already booked to see their Coriolanus for the 30th of January and I'm really hoping that they'll screen their version of Macbeth again - which starred Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston and Alexander Vlahos. They screened it earlier this year but I missed it :(

Rating: 5/5
Film Certificate Rating: 15


Manette said...

I'm going to see the version with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature on the 17th of November! They're showing the other version a week later and I might go and see that too... But first I have to convince myself that I can actually afford it xP

Hannah said...

*shrieks* I'm so excited for you! :) I'm seeing the Creaturebatch version this year as well. I can't wait to know your thoughts on it!