Review – Frankenstein, National Theatre

Thursday 17 February 2011

When the West End Whingers was created on a metaphorical slab in Soho’s White Horse hostelry some five years ago there were no very, very frightening thunderbolts or lightening or power surges blacking out the West End and no mobs of angry gay villagers.

Indeed their genesis was a much duller affair than even might be inferred from their prose.

Less prosaic, however, was the extraordinary dream that Phil had recently when he drifted off on the banks of the Queen Mother Reservoir just off the M4, the result of some very Swiss cheese. In it he was married to the poetess Pam Ayres and a Gothic Dr Philistein (or possibly Philistine) was giving life to the Andrew known and loved today. The creature was assembled from any detritus Philistein could lay his hands on scavenged from skips around the Walworth Road with the occasional body part thrown in, he linked up his monstrous achievement to Vinopolis and waited impatiently for some inclement weather.

But interestingly even Phil’s unleashed, gratinated Gothic dreams could not compete with the vision that director Danny Boyle and designer Mark Tildesley have conjured up at the National Theatre for Nick Dear‘s version of Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein. For it does look rather splendid.

But first we had a dilemma. The theatre gods are always looking for new ways to make theatre-going more complicated and for reasons that otherwise elude us Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and The Creature. Although there is a schedule to let you know who is playing what and when, this does not extend to previews. For no particular reason other than that to us it seemed the right way round, we were hoping to see Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and JLM as The Creature.

Nick Dear picks up Mary Shelley’s tale at the “birth” of The Creature (Miller as it turned out) who emerges naked as the day he was born (oh, wait) through what seemed to be the skin of a Kodo drum. He’s heavily scarred where his body parts have been sloppily stitched together (how tidy of Danny Boyle to follow Greenland edicts and find a way of recycling James Franco’s arm); someone really should buy Frankenstein a subscription to Sewing World.

This, butt naked, umm, opening makes Daniel Radcliffe’s nude scene in Equus look like mere flashing. From his second row seat Andrew didn’t know where to fix his gaze. Bare feet on stage! How on earth would he get through it all?

But worse was to come. The Creature writhed around on the floor without dialogue for 15 minutes, learning to crawl and to stand and to run before experiencing different sensations for the first time: lust, pain, food, water and cold. Exposed feet and mime! It really shouldn’t work but it did and Phil was even a tad disappointed when people began to speak.

Miller pulled it off (the coup) admirably in spite of the major obstacle that it is difficult to credit the horrified reactions of the people he encounters because – ham-fisted cross-stiching aside – he looks rather fit, buff and, yes, even comely. Frankly Andrew was a tiny bit jealous.

Tildesley’s design uses the Olivier to its full advantage – often sparingly, always imaginatively and even calling out of retirement the *drum roll* drum revolve!  Hoorah! The set spreads into the stalls whose walls are papier-mâchéd to within an inch of their life. A bell hangs over the audience and hundreds of lights (Bruno Poet) dangle from a silver wedge of brie. Perhaps mindful of the energy used to operate the revolve the lights are turned on full blast only intermittently and when they do you experience a wave of overhead heat. Phil made a mental note: cancel that appointment at the tanning salon. Andrew suddenly had an insight into how it must feel to be a fried egg on the breakfast buffet at Debenham’s cafeteria. But there was no time to dwell on this. For no particular reason a “train” cames out into the stalls emitting blasts of steam. Andrew was on an aisle seat, took the full blast and made a mental note to cancel his appointment to have his right ear syringed.

Karl Johnson plays the blind man impressively blind as The Creature’s Henry Higgins who teaches him to talk and introducing him to the works of Milton (Dr Philistein gave up with his own special creation at this point). Like the Elephant Man The Creature wants to be accepted in society. Will quoting chunks of Paradise Lost help? Not in the Whingers’ circles. But then appropriately the dateless Whingers saw this on Valentine’s Day having no other calls on their time.

Victor and his creation share little stage time until half way through the play’s snappy 1hour 50 minutes running time. The crux of Dear’s version is the relationship between them and Phil thought it very effective: a very peculiar and fine bromance. Phil liked the music by Underworld so much that he would have bought the CD.

There are two consecutive press nights next week so critics will be able to go and see this Frankenstein with knobs on and decide which of Ben & Jonny’s chunky monkeys is the more impressive. Mark Shenton is going to have his work cut out updating his Willies I Have Witnessed thesis. There is also a chance for someone who sits in the other side of the stalls, as it were, (perhaps Charles “Pure Theatrical Viagra” Spencer) to begin a corresponding opus entitled Glimpses I Have Snatched (or Snatches I Have Glimpsed) thanks to a nude scene featuring Andreea Padurariu as the female creature although we warn any would-be chuff-archivists that this may actually have been a prosthetic pudendum (but we are not experts).

It is a shame that the National don’t have more faith in their own creation. Andrew was sent an email by the theatre a few days before our visit stating: “Please note that the production will start promptly at 7.30pm (it didn’t). The opening scene is not to be missed” suggesting that the rest of the show is, perhaps, missable. Danton’s Death in reverse if you will. We know lots of people who have been to see this show and HATED it, mostly for the script and while it’s true that the role of Victor Frankenstein is so under-written as to be almost non-existent we were happy to find ourselves caught up in the Creature’s picaresque journey. There was even talk of “human condition” over a drink. Imagine.

Footnotes

1. Of course, much of the suspense had been eliminated because much of the script was dropped on us from a great height when we saw Greenland where we also got a copy of a memo with updates on projects involving Michael Frayn, Rupert Goold, Matt Charman, Yasmina Reza, Catherine Johnson and Joe Penhall which was quite fascinating but (as we are not Whingileaks) we are far too discreet to share.

2. We’re pleased to report that rumours that the National are selling a smoking green cocktail called The Experiment proved to be true – a melon liqueur, lemon water, twist of lime concoction with a capsule popped in to create the effect. It’s rather impressive. There’s also a Bloody Mary Shelley on sale, now that really made us smile. But really, what idiots would shell out £5.75 for a novelty drink?

Rating

Rating score 4-5 full-bodied

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19 Responses to “Review – Frankenstein, National Theatre”

  1. Mutha Superior Says:

    Oh dear, Whingers. I was there the same night. In an act of hubris almost as bold as that of Victor F, I reproduce my thoughts on this farrago below:

    Terrible to behold

    On paper, and in terms of advance bookings, the National Theatre’s new production of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic is a triumph waiting to happen. Directed by Danny Boyle of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting fame, starring Johnny Lee Miller and man of the moment Benedict Cumberbatch alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and The Creature, and boasting a spectacular set which fills the vast Olivier auditorium, all the parts should stitch together into something really special.

    Dreadful to report, then, that on the basis of the performance I saw, after a week of previews, and with Lee Miller as the creature and Cumberbatch as the Prof, this calamitous venture should be taken off the stage immediately, rewritten and recast – at least in the supporting roles – before one more hapless punter has to endure it.

    I find it almost impossible to express just how vacuous this show is. It fails on almost every level. It starts well enough, with the immense stage swathed in cloth but with little other decoration except for a womb-like object, seemingly made of skin, and a huge lighting rig dominating much of the auditorium.

    Out of this womb falls the Creature, naked and struggling into fitful life, eventually finding its feet and taking its first strides. This is a wonderfully arresting piece of physical theatre. But it goes on for nearly 15 minutes – an eighth of the play’s total running time.

    You get the first inklings of unease when what appears to be a steam train pulls on stage, carrying the NT’s patented gang of ragamuffins to torment and berate the hapless creature.

    We then move swiftly through the Creature’s education at the hands of a blind old man, his subsequent murderous fury, the tracing of his creator, Victor, and murder of Victor’s brother, the creation and destruction of a bride, Victor’s wedding, Victor’s marriage to Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s SPOILER ALERT rape and murder. If this sounds episodic, that’s because it is.

    Nick Dear has taken a story so rich in cultural resonance, so full of ideas, so thrilling in its examination of morality, spirituality, justice and politics, that it has spawned more than 90 adaptations for stage, screen and radio.

    He has taken all this and added nothing. There is not one coherent idea across the entire evening.

    And director Danny Boyle seems similarly disinterested in doing anything other than providing a series of pretty pictures, and keeping his pals Underworld in gainful employment providing the score for the evening.

    As for the cast, Mr Cumberbatch gives us his Sherlock Redux, which is perfectly fine, but hardly inspiring. Mr Lee Miller fares much better as the creature – the only good role in the entire wretched enterprise.

    Naomie Harris is beautiful as Elizabeth, but projects poorly and has little of value to contribute, thanks to Mr Dear’s text.

    The supporting characters are uniformly dire, thinly written and amateurishly acted. The exception is George Harris as Frankenstein’s father. Mr Harris speaks with a pronounced Caribbean accent and seems incapable of projecting beyond the stage. Or perhaps he alone is simply too embarrassed by the rubbish he is appearing in to enter into the spirit of the enterprise with any gusto. Either way, this is probably the most appallingly misconceived performance I have ever seen in a major production on the London stage.

    There is a great show here struggling to get out. Anyone who saw Melly Still’s extraordinary production of the children’s book Coram Boy on the same stage a few years ago will look upon this farrago and despair. That show had all the guts, terror and emotion that this bloodless, hateful waste of time lacks.

    If NT director Nicholas Hytner has any backbone, he will cancel the remaining previews and postpone opening night for a month.

    • Clare Says:

      Was so excited to get a return ticket for this show tonight, but…what a crashing disappointment. Jonny Lee Miller wonderful performance, but the script falls very short as do many of the cast. The scene where William suddenly reappears out of a sack is clunky beyond belief, trowelled in to explain Victor’s motivation for destroying his creation of a partner for the Creature. Feel sad at all the missed opportunities.

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    Wow, this was NOT my take on this show. You must have REALLY got more out of it from your up-close-and-personal seats than I did back in row N. I found the clunkiness of the script unforgivable.

  3. Will Says:

    Agree wholeheartedly with webcowgirl and Mutha Superior – it needs a lot of work.

    Cumberbatch was a fantastic Creature the night I attended but let down but almost every other element.

    Full review here: http://danceliketheydo.wordpress.com/2011/02/09/review_frankenstein_national_theatre/

  4. A Clown Says:

    Oh that’s where that memo of future plays ended up!! ;-)

    Sometimes your poetry moves me to tears “a silver wedge of brie” – Shelley herself couldn’t have put it more eloquently. Think you’re being a bit too lenient on this play here: one performance, however impressive, does not a show make and for me there was just so much wrong with the script and the supporting characters (from the blind man’s family, to Elizabeth and Frankenstein’s father).

    Mightily impressed by the buffness of Cumberbatch as the monster, most unexpected! (Also he wore flesh-coloured support socks so he wasn’t ‘really’ bare-footed, would this have helped Andrew d’ya think?)

  5. sandown Says:

    “Nick Dear … has taken all this and added nothing.” (Mutha Superior)

    Not quite true. “The Creature’s education at the hands of a blind old man” (Mutha again) is largely added to the original. The Creature’s education turns out to be mostly in the kind of issues Dear — my pun, thank you — to the heart of the subsidised theatre. “Some people are rich, and some people are poor.”

    No ! Really ?

  6. Oliver Soden Says:

    Without exception the worse thing I have EVER seen at the National – boring, amateurish, utterly risible text and performance.

  7. npm Says:

    Saw it last night and was impressed by Miller but depressed by the script and lack of ambition. Nick Dear seems to have borrowed a lot from the under-rated Brannagh film but failed to imbue the script with any original thought. For an interesting moment I thought the slant was going to be that all the Creature’s behaviour was learnt through observation, but sadly not; all we got was a basic presentation of Shelley’s themes without any insight or attempt to show them in an original light.

  8. Webby Says:

    I got a solid slating for daring to give this production a poor write-up after the first preview night. Perhaps I did actually know what I was talking about, Cumberbatch fangirl nutters.

    http://www.thingstodoinbalhamwhenyouredead.com/2011/02/cock-of-world-frankenstein-at-national.html

    • Sir Itch A Lot Says:

      If you don’t stop tooting your tin horn about your unremarkable blog review on every website in cyberspace I shall run amok. This has to be the tenth time you’ve pimped it. Honestly, you ain’t Kenneth Tynan, Webby.

  9. @pcchan1981 Says:

    Oliver Soden Says:

    ‘Without exception the worse thing I have EVER seen at the National.’

    Really? I assume you escaped; Danton’s Death, Or You Could Kiss Me & Women Beware Women + delights that I missed like Really Old, Like 45 & that’s just the last year.

    I loved this myself. Maybe I’m easily impressed but the style was more than enough for me to overlook any lack of substance. Seemingly all the savings made from staging Twelfth Night with a desk, a massive bit of cloth and some habitat furnashings were spent on this. But to be fair, who signed off the cheque for the train. Destined to become the most expensive prop per minute of screen time this year. I’ve never seen a production twice, but I’ll be 1st in line to see Cumberbatch as The Creature.


  10. Entirely not my take on this show at all. I thought it was a complete masterpiece. However, I must say that the script did fall short on a couple of occasions, but certainly this review is overly critical.

  11. Frankie Fan Says:

    Just seen the Cumberbatch as Creature press night performance. Sodding amazing. I agree with most of the moans – birth a little too long, the train special effect baffling and a waste of time, some of the supporting acting a bit weak… but who cares?

    Cumberbatch as the Creature was astounding, moving… a tragic figure. All those arses saying Boyle brought nothing to it – you don’t need to bring anything to the themes, which are so core, so intrinsic, that they’re the only themes worth writing about. You don’t need a new slant on why do we exist, when we didn’t ask to be born. This question is there for us all – we are a pile of organs and matter, which came from nothing, and are puzzled as fuck about why it’s all happening.

    Cumberbatch was all of us, wondering why he’s been thrust into this life, when he didn’t ask to be. His baffelement and pain was moving, and this man’s projection and charisma mark him out as the next true theatre star of his generation, if he hasn’t proved it already.

    Yep, Vic Frankenstein, I agree, was underwritten, and Miller was hoarse tonight. Glad I caught Benny C’s poetic Creature. This man is a STAR.

  12. Boz Says:

    Oooo look. You’ve been quoted on Guardian.co.uk:

    http://bit.ly/fQRh0U

  13. Rev Stan Says:

    “…this may actually have been a prosthetic pudendum” – surely a return of the merkin?


  14. A good review.
    It’s true that opinion seems divided between admirers and haters of this show. There seems to be a consensus however that Jonny Lee Miller’s Creature was spot-on, and fascinating. And certainly no-one can doubt it was an ambitious production!

    Here are our thoughts on the production : http://everything-theatre.blogspot.com/2011/02/frankenstein-national-theatre.html We reserve full judgment, however, until we get to see it in the alternate configuration!

  15. julie leyland Says:

    absolutely brilliant…..benedict as the monster…fabulous..well done to all the cast


  16. In deference to Sir Itch A Lot I’m resisting the urge to click on Webby’s link.

    Saw a (filmed) matinee performance last week that didn’t feature any nudity. Obviously that’s not as disappointing as being fobbed off with understudies, but the crudely fashioned underwear did lack a certain je ne sais quoi.

    As a film fan (and reviewer) I found the production strong on atmosphere and production design, with echoes of both Hammer and Universal horror.

    But I expected to see a lot more face time between Victor and the Creature. Most of the supporting roles were woefully underwritten and — particularly in the case of George Harris’s Frank Sr — weakly performed.

    Did anyone else have their enjoyment ruined by people coughing VERY LOUDLY all the way through? Time to instigate a three coughs and you’re out rule.


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