Some thoughts on Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein.
First of all, let me say that getting up at 6.30am, queueing for over an hour for tickets, and then standing for the two-hour duration of the show (because by the time the people in front of me in the queue had got to the box office there were no seats left) was totally worth it.
Secondly, I saw the show the way I wanted to see it: with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor (they alternate roles each night). This may have been part of the problems I shall expand on below, but I’m really glad I did. I had seen BC in quite a few stage plays before, but always in slightly nerdy, intellectually sophisticated, upper-middle class parts. Not that the Creature isn’t a complex intellectual part, but I wanted to see how he grappled with a more muscular role. (He grappled incredibly well - naked; for twenty wordless minutes; see photo above.)
So all in all, I enjoyed the show. Unfortunately I didn’t love it, and I think it has quite a few issues. The main problems come under two large categories, and they are interconnected.
Problem number one: the script is rather poor. The scene division is fairly sketchy, and while the structure works well (the play starts with the Creature, not with Victor’s creation), the play drags on a bit in the middle and at the end (the middle you can get away with, the end you can’t). On a purely textual level, the script soars when the Creature declaims lines from Milton, but everybody else is speaking very plain prose so rife with commonplace and banality that subtext is effectively made plain text with every line. Focussing on the Creature is great, and it gives the story much more passion and ‘true grit’, but as a result Frankenstein is so underwritten as a character, that his role truly becomes secondary, whereas it used to be Shelley’s prime concern. For me this is a huge flaw: you lose most of the moral struggle that is necessary to properly address the philosophical issues involved - whether man can or should ‘play god’, how far can we take science, how is consciousness born, can creatures have souls? Because the Creature is given the advantage of expression over everybody else, you have no doubts that he does indeed have ‘a soul’ and chooses to operate in the way he does when faced with humankind’s rejection.
Problem number two: casting. While I’m sure Miller must be excellent as the Creature, I didn’t like him as Victor. He played him as the mad scientist from James Whale’s film, rather than the ‘modern Prometheus’ he is intended to be. He was an action hero, possessed by a crazed desire to prove himself a god, rather than by the genius of science and the knowledge of a superior intellect. This is partly the script’s fault, and partly Miller’s own style: his voice is too hoarse, and his body too angry to be intellectually cool. (See: Boyle didn’t direct his feet!) His Frankenstein is driven by his penis, rather than his brain - not because of desire but because of testosterone: he wants to be a father of perfect creatures without having to engage in emotional and sexual contact with other human beings (he clearly despises them and their petty concerns), he wants to be the superior man-creator of a whole new humankind without debasing himself to human urges. (Interestingly, only the Creature and women are shown to have sexual and romantic desires.) This is fine, but it’s only one aspect of the character that Miller manages to convey, and I found it a little one-dimensional. (I would bet money on the fact that Cumberbatch makes something more even of this underwritten part.)
The other casting issue for me was Frankenstein père, who, turned into a father figure from Jane Austen’s rather than Mary Shelley’s world, lost all his authority and power. It’s a story of lost or negligent fathers, impotent fathers, farcical fathers - god is dead, the Father is dead, and Freud isn’t feeling that good himself. But again, this reinforces my feeling that removing basic, traditional morality from Frankenstein doesn’t make the story more modern or more interesting. Besides, the actor is clearly not playing for laughs, he’s just being laughed at. He was just the wrong casting choice (note to Danny: a large man with very thin legs never looks good in Regency breeches and stockings).
Danny Boyle’s direction was ok - on the down side: a lot of traditionally blocked movement (mmmpf), some strange and confusing condensing of chronological settings (the Frankensteins live in the English 1810s, but the villages and cities look more like 1850s, so that Boyle can insert some subtext about technology, progress, science moving forward, etc - fine, but a bit laboured, imho); but on the up side, a smart and effective staging: some wonderful images are done with shadows and backlighting, the design is brilliant (lightbulbs! lots of them!), and the Olivier stage’s hydraulic revolving platform is used very well. But the play doesn’t end nor begin with a bang, but with the proverbial whimper - and that, my friends, is a weakness of direction.
On the whole, it felt really as though Cumberbatch was in a league of his own - and amongst actors today he probably is. He was emotionally subtle, physically powerful, outlining the growth of the Creature’s soul as well as his body with supreme finesse and control. His voice radically changes in a theatrical space, and the moment he opens his mouth to howl - whether in joy or pain - he fills the air with presence. It’s extraordinary how big and how small he can become. He is in a tragedy of its own Shakespearean grandeur, while everybody else is doing George Bernard Shaw.
Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein is currently on at the National Theatre. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternating roles as Victor Frankenstein and the Creature.
This is a time-honoured tradition in British theatre: for instance, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud famously alternated as Romeo/Mercutio in the 1935 production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet at the New Theatre, London, directed by Gielgud himself - albeit not without trouble.
Needless to say I’m DYING to see Cumberbatch not so much in the Frankenstein role - in which we can safely assume he’ll be excellent - but rather as the Creature. The Creature being the real core of the story, if we follow Mary Shelley’s tremendous original text.
Naturally, the National Theatre show sold out minutes after going on sale, and I haven’t yet been able to get a ticket. I’m going to try and queue for a day ticket/returns (a time-honoured tradition for me, in my theatre-going days), but for those of you who can’t get to London (or don’t fancy braving the crazy Cumberbatch fans, and/or the fierce elderly people who spend their early mornings outside the National Theatre to get in on a day ticket) the NT will broadcast the show live in cinemas worldwide. And they are going to do so twice, so that people can get a chance to experience both performances. Schedule as follows:
Benedict Cumberbatch (Creature), Jonny Lee Miller (Frankenstein)
Benedict Cumberbatch (Frankenstein), Jonny Lee Miller (Creature)
Venues can be found here.
Update: Guardian article about doubles in theatre.