It was inevitable that director (and arguable national treasure) Danny Boyle’s return to the theatre would be keenly anticipated. Throw in a cast featuring one of the stars of his breakout movie Trainspotting, the lead from Sherlock – one of British TV’s biggest new series and an intriguing take on an iconic story and the production was elevated to must-see status, although as tickets were rapidly snapped up, the only way that many will get the chance to catch the play is via the National Theatre’s ongoing programme of cinema broadcasts NT Live (demand to see the production is in fact so great that even these screenings are selling out).
According to a pre-show featurette, Boyle and playwright Nick Dear have been considering adapting Mary Shelley’s classic horror for well over a decade, and with good reason. Frankenstein may be one of the most influential and thought provoking novels ever written, but truthfully its prose is far from elegant, and while the story has inspired numerous film adaptations, most (if not all) are deeply flawed. As Boyle notes so many of these adaptations have focused on the story of the arrogant scientist and completely ignored the point of view of his creation whose increasingly articulate voice is one of the more intriguing aspects of the novel, and so Boyle and Dear have decided to give the creature his ‘voice’ back and, to show how committed the production is to bringing the character to the forefront, the two leads (Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch) swap between playing Frankenstein and his Creature.
The creative team may claim that the two central characters have an essentially equal, symbiotic relationship, but in actuality the production has shifted focus so far away from the Doctor that it really is the Creature’s show (or at least that would apply to this particular production, in which the more reliable Cumberbatch is in the role). Frankenstein himself barely features in the first third, and while it’s a fascinating process to watch the Creature’s birth and acquisition of language, there is a noticeable void in the proceedings. In particular the section in which he receives his education feels somewhat clunky – the interludes created by the frequent jumping forward in time would have provided an excellent opportunity to focus on the creator. In the second half of the play it becomes increasingly clear where the script’s sympathies lie as, despite his murderous nature, the Creature is shown to be a superior and more sympathetic figure than the alienated and loveless scientist.
It’s where the creature and creator meet that the play becomes exceptional. Not only do the two leads clearly relish having the opportunity to play against each other, with them mirroring each other’s mannerisms of the other to display this symbiosis, but it provides Dear with the opportunity to take on the novel’s more philosophical leanings as the two argue about the Creature’s right to exist (which in turn adds weight to Boyle’s assertion that the story has survived so well as its themes are so adaptable – to me so much of these discussions sounded just like the choice vs genetics argument that is still ongoing in the gay rights debate). This may make the play seem dry but Dear wisely includes a fair amount of humour to lighten these scenes, and Boyle and his stars work hard to pull off the necessary moments of horror and tragedy. On the other hand none of the other actors really get much of a look in. While the company are mostly fine (a few background characters go a bit over-the-top, and not in a good way) there generally isn’t much for them to work with, even considering the presence of solid performers like 28 Days Later…’s Naomie and Harry Potter’s George Harris (as far as I know, no relation) – both intriguing bits of colour-blind casting that hopefully audiences won’t have too hard a time accepting.
As to the experience of seeing a play in a packed multiplex screen, it’s an odd one. Clearly less used to handling a full house and creating a sense of an event than their theatrical counterparts, the ushers in my local provide an amusingly ramshackle sort of crowd control and sardonic pre-show commentary, largely in order to sell more ice cream. And while I could make a snide comment about the incongruity of being bombarded with posters for the latest soulless Hollywood product on leaving the screen, the National Theatre themselves are just as bad when it comes to self-promotion, forcing the audience to sit through half-an-hour’s worth of adverts for their own publications and memorabilia. It could also be said that Boyle’s production isn’t a great choice for the programme – there may be some benefits to seeing the play on the big screen, such as being able to get close enough to the actors to see the sweat pouring off their faces, hearing Underworld’s impressive soundtrack delivered through the cinema’s sound system and, of course, merely having the opportunity to see the sold-out production, but far more is lost in the experience. The production design is clearly designed to create a sense of spectacle, but when witnessed in two dimensions the effect is rather diminished, and a lot of these flourishes (particularly an early appearance of a demonic steam train) end up feeling rather superfluous and wasteful.
While it’s fantastic that there is such a large audience for challenging, intelligent drama (even if it still falls short of being a definitive version of the story), there is still the question of whether experiencing it in such a way qualifies as a theatrical experience. It may not seem to be that important a question now but considering subsidised theatre’s requirement to reach wider audiences as well as the relative ease of it doing so with the live broadcast strategy, and the withdrawal of funding for theatres in the provinces, it’s not inconceivable that the success of such a venture may in the future lead to a theatrical scene based even more around the capital than it is now. And while it may be nice to have the opportunity to see a hot ticket London production in the comfort of the local cinema, it shouldn’t been seen as being a real alternative to the experience of seeing it in the flesh.