Frankenstein – NT Encore
By Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Directed by Danny Boyle
5th November 2013, Poole Lighthouse
National Theatre Encore is a season of National Theatre plays originally broadcast live to cinemas (as NT Live) as they were performed, but they are now broadcast recordings from past NT Live shows as part of the NT’s 50th Anniversary. So how is it different to a DVD? Well, it’s broadcast to cinemas on a particular day, though twice, so retains the air of an event. Just about.
Frankenstein was a 2011 production, also broadcast in 2011 and 2012. It was completely sold out on the South Bank, and we couldn’t get tickets. The story is close to my heart. Mary Shelley happens to be buried in Bournemouth and her grave is one of the few attractions of any literary interest in my home town. However, the public perception of Frankenstein is not the Mary Shelley story at all, but the James Whale version in classic Universal black and white films starting with Frankenstein (1931), which was based on a play by Peggy Webling, very freely adapted from Mary Shelley. Boris Karloff is the monster as most remember him. Bride of Frankenstein continued the story in 1935, then Son of Frankenstein in 1939 and House of Frankenstein in 1944. I know them well. In 1976 we wrote Frankenstein The Pantomime (yes! A children’s panto with a kindly monster, but only the kids knew he was a goodie), though we adapted several jokes from Young Frankenstein scripted by Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks. I didn’t appear in our annual ELT pantomimes, as it doesn’t go well with production, but in that one I played the monster. In the 1980s it was produced again by ELT teachers in Oman, and I was sent a video, with a large RAF band as pit orchestra. Sorry, none of that has anything to with the NT Encore production.
The stage production starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who switched roles, taking it in turns to play Doctor Frankenstein and The Monster. They were recognized by sharing the 2012 Olivier Award for Best Actor. The filmed version was a Cumberbatch monster night, and I find it hard to imagine the other way round … Miller is such a perfect Dr Frankenstein with all the necessary intensity. Oddly, most of the pictures on Google Image search are the Miller- Monster / Cumberbatch – Doctor version!
Cumberbatch’s monster literally ‘meets his maker’
The main advantage of the NT filmed version is you can see the incredible detail on Cumberbatch’s monster make-up as if you were sitting in the front row, then you can look down on the action when need be as if right at the top of the theatre. There are odd audience coughs and laughter too. It’s not live theatre, but you can truly see how great the live production was, even if the impact is secondhand. If you’ve been in the building you can sense how the sudden glaring flashes of light and music would have felt. You can appreciate the subtleties of the performances better in close up.
The play is the best version ever of the story. Period. Nick Dear has been free with it, and utilised the James Whale films as well as the novel. The timeline is well-worked out, starting with the emergence (birth? revival?) of The Monster, and the first ten minutes or more are his wordless attempt to control his body, with a fleeting appearance from Doctor Frankenstein who runs away, abandoning him. Cue attacks by people, then the blind man sequence supposedly a full year where the monster gets educated, which ends with violence. the little brother of Frankenstein, William, is murdered to get Dr F’s attention. The doctor goes to the Orkneys to create a Bride for the monster … cue very funny Scots graverobbers, and a very attractive but incomplete female creation. Then back to Inglesburg for the marriage to Elizabeth and I still haven’t worked out how the monster was hidden within quite an average bed for a long scene before springing out… there’s a LOT of James Whale’s story around, though mutated. It ends in the frozen Arctic wastes, as does the novel.
It deserved every award it got. If only we’d seen it truly live. All the parts are great. Naomi Harris is Elizabeth, the fiancée, The colour blindness of the production is mildly confusing. Dr F’s dad is Afro-Caribbean, as is his fiancé, but they’re the only two Afro-Caribbean actors in the play which makes you think, ‘What? He’s engaged to his sister?’ for a minute, or it did me. But she’s a cousin. Karl Johnson is wonderful as the blind academic (though calling him De Lacey in the programme doesn’t help … we never hear the name, I think). Ella Smith has a series of cameos as different characters … all funny and strikingly good.
I notice that retrospective reviews get few readers or comments, but they do help ME remember it. And I want to.