National Theatre Live: Frankenstein
125 mins / Dir. Danny Boyle
Now you know me, I'm not really a theatre person. That's why I go to the cinema as often as I do. It's not a question of location or convenience, it's more that the larger the theatre, the more mainstream the production, so I don't usually bother. I don't really have the frame-of-reference (that I think) I need to get the most out of the theatre, so projects like this are ideal for me. The kind of show I'd be interested in, in a format that suits me down to the ground.
Despite the title-prefix, today's showing wasn't "live" live, but recorded from one production last year, so everything you see happens at the same pace as sitting in the theatre watching the play. The show is a new adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle, and starring Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch as the monster and his creator, respectively. Or the creator and the monster, depending on which performance you see. For the live run, the actors swapped parts every night, giving the pair of them a unique insight into their (and each other's) roles.
"Slowly I learnt the ways of humans: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learnt how to lie."
The Plot: Told largely from the point of view of the monster, Frankenstein follows his journey from a shambling, newborn beast, through his education at the hands of a kindly surrogate father-figure, to the point where his intellect is equal-to and greater-than that of his creator. The point where he learns what it is to be human by causing the same level of destruction as they do.
The Good: Johnny Lee Miller. For the version I watched, JLM steals the show as the monster. I'm confident that Cumberbatch has the chops to equal the performance on his nights in the make-up, but without seeing it, I can't imagine he'll better it. In order for the production to work as it does, the decision was made that the monster would speak. It's handled beautifully, as he learns to talk over the course of the two hours (three years in story-time), progressing through childlike grunts and exclamations to fully coherent sentences that hint of learning difficulties and underlying madness. The fact that he has a fully-developed brain that only has to be filled with knowledge is hinted at, but not spelled out, and it's stunning to watch the literal growth of the monster, yearning for acceptance, understanding and love. There's absolutely no doubt that the monster is more of a sympathetic character than in any other version of the story that I've seen, but it never becomes cloying or forced.
Cumberbatch is also on top form as the crazed scientist who created life because he saw it as an equation to be completed. His whole performance is distant, but always through a lack of understanding, rather than compassion. While the scenes of the play are long enough to justify the sets that have been built, they don't drag, and what appears at first to be a 'minimal' set holds surprises in terms of versatility. It's helped hugely by great lighting, of course, but it doesn't overshadow the cast or the story.
There's little else I can really say without going into theatre-review territory (which again, I don't have the frame of reference to do), so I'll just say that I went to the cinema with an open mind, and left very impressed.
The Bad: Firstly, not all of the acting is as good as the two leads. It's nowhere near AmDram level, but some of the other performers seem to have their tongue in their cheek, somewhat. It's not crisis-point, but it contrasts with Cumberbatch and Miller who play their roles with total conviction.
Secondly, it's a bit theatre. Particularly the first five minutes. Yes, I know how that sounds. To the show's credit, there's no attempt to disguise the face that this is a live performance, filmed in front of an audience. The shape and design of the stage means that you can't film all of the required shots without catching them somewhere at least, and while it's minimal, it did keep pulling me out a little. There's a lot of camerawork in the cinematic presentation of the show (ie, it's not just a single static camera filming), so as a cinema audience, you're already seeing so much more than a theatre-patron. But as cool as that is, when a wide/reverse-shot shows the audience sitting enjoying the show, it does pull me out, because that's not what you'd go to the theatre to see. It's a minor-point, and almost nonsensical in mentioning, but it's the only thing keeping me from giving this full marks. It's still better than almost everything else I've seen at the cinema this year.
The Ugly: My only regret is not being at home the other week when they showed the version with Cumberbatch as the monster. Even I can tell that this really does deserve to be watched as part of a duology.
Worth £10? Yes. If you can see this at your local, do. When it finally arrives on DVD/Blu-Ray, I cannot recommend this highly enough. A stunning achievement.
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.