Reanimating ‘At Home’ Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre Frankenstein

05/05/2020

United KingdomUnited Kingdom NT at HomeFrankenstein by Nick Dear (based on the novel by Mary Shelley): Directed for the screen by Tim van Someren and recorded at London’s Olivier Theatre in 2011. Reviewed on 4.5.2020. (JPr)

Benedict Cumberbatch (Creature) & Jonny Lee Miller (Frankenstein) (c) Catherine Ashmore

Production:
Director – Danny Boyle
Set designer – Mark Tidesley
Costume designer – Suttirat Anne Larlarb
Lighting designer – Bruno Poet
Music & Sound Score – Underworld

Cast included:
The Creature – Benedict Cumberbatch
Victor Frankenstein – Jonny Lee Miller
Gretel – Ella Smith
Gustav – John Killoran
Klaus – Steven Elliott
Agatha de Lacey – Lizzie Winkler
De Lacey – Karl Johnson
Felix de Lacey – Daniel Millar
Elizabeth Lavenza – Naomie Harris
William Frankenstein – Jared Richard
M. Frankenstein – George Harris
Clarice – Ella Smith
Servants – Martin Chamberlain, Daniel Ings
Rab – Mark Armstrong
Ewan – John Stahl
Female Creature – Andreea Padurariu
Constable – John Killoran
Ensemble – Josie Daxter, William Nye

In a ‘Blueprint for getting the UK back to work’ I have just seen, the Arts and its varied venues does not get a mention, so I suspect it will be many months before any of us return to the cinema or any form of live entertainment. Therefore – until they run out of content – the National Theatre Live’s online streams are very welcome as a reminder of what we might have missed there and as an encouragement to anticipate what the NT will bring us in, hopefully, happier future times.

Currently (until 8 May) you can see this ‘monster’ hit from 2011 and revisit – or see for the first time as I did – Danny Boyle’s critically-acclaimed 2011 production of the Nick Dear adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was famous at the time, not only because tickets sold-out almost immediately, but also that Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein, the ‘mad scientist’ playing God, and his creation on successive evenings. Of course, Danny Boyle, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller needed little introduction in 2011 …and now even less in 2020.

I must admit I have never read Mary Shelley’s original novel having been introduced to the Frankenstein story through James Whale’s 1931 classic film with the easily-imitable Boris Karloff as the Monster and all its following iterations, including some later Hammer films, notably with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. (Please forgive my obvious lack of education in this and other masterpieces of English literature!). Nick Dear seems to bring us the CliffsNotes version of the familiar story and races through it in several short – quasi-cinematic – sequences.

Initially, we do not see Frankenstein create his creature, nor animate him. Dear and Boyle’s focus is on the nameless creature and his ‘birth’ after the tolling of a huge The Hunchback of Notre Dame-like bell. This not in a laboratory due to some lightning, but he emerges bloodied and nearly-naked into the world – out of what is referred to in the play as an ‘electric egg’ – during a membrane-ripping sequence. (Initially, I was strongly reminded of the emergence of a ‘pod person’ in Don Siegel’s seminal 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) Given that there is a two-hour running time this over-extended wordless opening scene (lasting over 20 minutes) goes on and on as the creature writhes around, struggles to stay upright, and learns how to walk. Frankenstein enters and is appalled at what he sees and chases his creation away. The modern industrial world intrudes in the shape of an impressive steam engine and we hear – how because of all the goings on in Ingolstadt where Frankenstein has been working – ‘women and children are locked indoors’ (does that remind anybody of anything?).

The Creature inspires terror and revulsion in those he initially encounters in the outside world and is abused and beaten mercilessly. During his wanderings he experiences some of the joys of nature – in flocks of birds and falling rain – before finding some respite in a remote dwelling in the countryside and is ‘tutored’ by the kindly De Lacey (Karl Johnson), an old blind man; learning to speak, read great literature (soon he can recite passages from Milton’s Paradise Lost by heart), write, and philosophise.

Our sympathy is supposedly to be entirely with The Creature: he does not know where he has come from, is alone, and – once he understands what love is – unloved. His inherent muderous temperament is a result of all the ill-treatment he receives from the majority of the people he comes across. He is kept apart from De Lacey’s farming family for a long time but the inevitable happens when they encounter him and this (literally) fuels their destruction. In his quest for companionship from someone like himself, he journeys to Geneva, and after killing Frankenstein’s younger brother, William, confronts him to demand a mate. This all happens at the same time Frankenstein is about to marry his adopted sister(?) Elizabeth.

What are we to make of the scientist himself? He obviously really appreciates how irresponsible he has been for creating something he has discarded and more than once Elizabeth points out he should stop wanting to play God, but rather do his family duty by becoming a father. Unfortunately, Frankenstein remains obsessed with putting things right and maybe improving on his first attempt; he has little interested in love and apparently never even touches Elizabeth. Events hasten to a brutal conclusion and in the end – there are no real spoilers here – both Frankenstein and his creature are shown locked together in an eternal – some might suggest infernal – embrace. Paradise lost? Yes, well and truly.

Tim van Someren’s direction for the screen has his cameras roam though the Olivier Theatre overhung by Bruno Poet’s glittering array of myriad lights. Set designer Mark Tildesley’s use of a revolve moves us effortlessly from a farmhouse to city streets, Lake Geneva, takes us on a sea voyage, shows us the Frankenstein’s family home, ending everything in the icy wasteland of the Arctic. Given his reputation it must be said how Danny Boyle’s direction – despite some imaginative flourishes such as an early cod ballet sequence involving Andreea Padurariu’s Female Creature – is rather perfunctory: mostly characters just stand and deliver. Also, Underworld’s electronic music only rarely suitably underscores the emotions of what we see on stage. Throughout creature remains more compelling than creator and I suspect Boyle always intended that. Almost everyone other than The Creature is particularly ill-served by Nick Dear apart from Karl Johnson’s caring De Lacey. Even Naomi Harris’s frustrated Elizabeth who rails against a woman’s place in her eighteenth-century world, as well as, Frankenstein’s antics (complaining how he worships ‘the gods of electricity and gas’) seems a little preachy.

Maybe it was just me, but Benedict Cumberbatch’s Creature – however compelling his performance was overall – made me a little uncomfortable in all the jerky movement and slurring speech that was too redolent of those suffering a neurological muscle disorder. Nevertheless, his anger at his circumstances was palpable and his commitment to the role was mighty impressive. Jonny Lee Miller got little to do but portray Frankenstein’s sneering arrogance; though there was some heartfelt regret at what he has wrought near the end. (Both seemed rather shouty at times but that might have been highlighting balance issues between performing on stage and being recorded for the screen.)

Had I enjoyed this Frankenstein a little more I would have returned to watch it again with the roles reversed. If you have not had a chance to see what is now considered a legendary National Theatre staging, then please catch it if you still can.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the National Theatre and NT at Home click here.

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