Let me preface this review with an apology. I am going to be discussing the screening of The National Theatre’s most recent production of Frankenstein starring Jonny Lee Miller as Dr Frankenstein and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Monster and therefore there may be points in which I give things away. I hope to limit this but as with all reviews it is often difficult to avoid and so I apologise. It is also worth stating that watching a theatre production and watching a screening of a theatre production are two very different experiences, both with their good and bad points. I will attempt to engage with these differences where I can.
The screening begins with a short introduction from the writer, Nick Dear, and Director, Danny Boyle. It is a nice touch that allows you to connect with the artistry of the production before you even begin as it allows you an insight in to their minds and anticipate changes that they explain their motivations. We also see a montage of both Miller and Cumberbatch in both roles which wouldn’t otherwise be possible unless you choose to see the production twice. We also hear from the actors themselves as the explain how they went about choosing how to portray the characters and what inspiration they use. It is a great resource for any actors of film buffs in the audience. But only to the cinema going audience as this opening introduction is not available to the theatre audience. The first thing they would have seen was the birthing of the Monster.
I do mean the literal birthing, the monster emerging from a womb like opening complete with umbilical cord. What is witnessed next can only be described as excruciatingly uncomfortable yet brilliant. The opening of the play sets up the tone as stated by Boyle. It is all about the Monster, we are made to watch and concentrate on nothing but the monster as he emerges and finds his feet, a cross between the primordial human and a fawn in the woods. This is one of the ways that the filming of the production differs from a film. You get the impression that Boyle has made the theatrical equivalent of a growing/learning montage. But instead of the scenes being sharply cut together showing rapid progress we get no breaks or reprieves. We are made to sit and watch as the, practically naked, monster stumbles around slowly animating his limbs and discovering his voice.
As always, Benedict Cumberbatch is extremely convincing in this role as he is with any. As anyone who has seen his audition for Smaug in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Cumberbatch embodies the character he is playing fully, even when it is only a speaking role. His portrayal of the monster is no different. It is almost as if his limbs actually don’t belong to him in places, animated as the rest of him is still as though he has no idea it is there. Very convincing indeed. But I can’t help but wonder what Miller would have done with the same scene on a different night. During the interview at the beginning he shares that as they kept swapping the roles, the characters began to bleed into each other sharing stutters and other characteristics. This makes you want to turn up the next night, knowing that the stories will be exactly the same just so you can pick out where it is different. To see if the characters will seem even more similar when they switch places. It is a fantastic experiment in characterisation and acting styles.
As stated before, this production is very much focused on the Monster, his feelings, motivations and experiences. We see Dr Frankenstein once at the beginning when he chases the monster away but then he doesn’t return again until the Monster goes looking for him much later. It is not until he returns later and we see his conduct with his fiancée/Cousin Elizabeth that it occurred to me, both Miller and Cumberbatch both play Sherlock Holmes, they share another character. Their portrayals of Sherlock are very different, almost as if they are of parallel universes. They are both modernised but Millers version is set in America, John is in fact Joan as well as Moriarty being a woman and a transgender Mrs Hudson. Cumberbatch’s version more traditional, using the original story lines in a modern setting. Therefore we are used to seeing these to actors comparatively through the characters they play. But more than that, we are used to seeing them distant and socially awkward yet absolutely brilliant.
What was strange was the casting of George Harris and Naomi Harris. Both wonderful actors in their own right but it is entirely unexplained as to why, as members of the Frankenstein family, they are clearly from another heritage. It is never mentioned, alluded to or indicated that it is at all unusual. But I find that somewhat endearing, clearly to them it does not matter. As though it is not worth mentioning, they ask us to accept that this family appear to be from different cultural backgrounds but they are a family none the less, accept it and move on with the story. Much like the second movie in the Jurassic Park Trilogy, in which Jeff Goldblum’s daughter is black with no explanation as to why. It is what it is and we move on.
So, moving on, watching a the filming of a theatre production does have it’s pros and cons. For example, we are given the unique advantage of close ups and camera angles which is impossible in even the most expensive seats in the theatre, which raises my next point. It makes the experience a hell of a lot more affordable as well as accessible if, like the majority of the audience when I went to see it, you are a student in the midlands and can’t afford to pop to London on a week day to take in a show. But at the same time you are at the mercy of the director, more so than if you were in the theatre audience, you also don’t get the atmosphere that only seems to exist in the theatre. The awe of knowing that actors now considered national treasures are in the same room and putting on a show for us is lost in the cinema yet the fact that we are still in a cinema means that we do not lose the collective feel as you would when watching it on DVD at home. By being in the cinema, we are an extension of the theatre audience, laughing when they laugh (believe it or not there are some fairly comical moments) and jumping when they jump. If you can’t make it to the theatre to see an up and coming production, a cinema viewing is truly the next best thing.
Previous to this viewing, I had never seen a theatre production filmed for cinema actually at the cinema and now I wonder why I’ve never been sooner. With the calibre of acting and directing quality it was always going to be a fantastic and moving production and it certainly didn’t disappoint. If it is showing anywhere near you would implore you to go and see for yourself and if you can’t decide which version to see… go to both! I wish I had.