james debate
james debate

Friday 11 March 2011

Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Nick Dear, Mary Shelley (novel)
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller
Theatre National Theatre

danny boyle frankenstein national

Needless to say, I was excited when I first heard that Danny Boyle, who has cemented a reputation as one of the best film makers of his generation, was returning to his roots in the theatre. At the same time this is a director whose films often shine through their clever use of technology and editing, techniques which are not available on the stage. I was looking forward to seeing how Boyle would cope with a much more traditional medium.

Joining Boyle is previous collaborator Jonny Lee Miller, as well as up and coming star Benedict Cumberbatch. The two stars alternate roles every night between Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, the Creature, with the former thespian bringing to life the more emotional and animalistic side of the two characters while Cumberbatch revels in the colder, intellectual aspects. Both are superb.

However, this is not Shelley's Frankenstein. Here the focus is much more on the Creature, and less on Frankenstein himself as most dramatisations of the literature tend to be. Thematically then there is a shift from a tale of hubris and callousness to one of sorrow and tragic irony. The focus is much more on the duality of the two central characters, as underlined by the nightly role reversal between the two actors.

My first impressions upon entering the theatre were positive. The set design was intricate and creative, and reached out into the audience with surfaces coated in a skin-like bandage, and a bell in the centre of the room from which a heavy rope hung down into the aisle to be pulled by audience members.

The production itself starts with panache, as Mary Shelley's classic creature bursts forth out of artificial womb stark naked, writhing in agony for several minutes as he learns to stand and walk. Boyle-esque flourishes fill the excellent first half of the evening, lending the proceedings a helping of the director's unmistakably unique brand of magic. Especially notable is a complex array of ceiling lights which fizzes to life in order to emphasise the action on stage, and the impressive mechanical representation of a train which spews steam and noise to startling effect.

The stylistic peak is reached in an early scene where the Creature explores the world around him for the first time, birds shoot out of tree trunks as the sunrise arcs across the back of the stage; the lighting and staging is absolutely divine. In addition, each scene is sublimely complemented by the fine musical work of electronic band underworld.

But this really is a play of two distinct halves. The first is simply a spectacular sensory feast for the audience, focusing entirely on the Creature as he finds his feet in the world. Later on when the focus shifts over to Dr. Frankenstein, the script starts to plod, and the innovative staging suddenly takes a turn for the more conventional. Indeed perhaps there is a narrative justification for this, as the more uplifting first half is about learning and enlightenment of a naive and innocent Creature who gradually sees the darkness in the world, while the frostier second half switches to a jaded and distant Dr. Frankenstein. For those in the audience who find themselves as blown away by the opening as I was, the later change in pace may come as a let down.

Despite this, I was not disappointed by my night out, and frankly the entire event is so finely produced, staged and acted (by the two stars anyway- the supporting cast is actually a bit weak) that I can't see how anyone will be. Danny Boyle's latest piece of brilliance is one of the best theatrical productions I've seen in a long time, and possibly the best you will see all year.

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