Writer: Nick Dear (Based on the novel by Mary Shelley)
Director: Danny Boyle
Reviewer: Mary Tapper
Such was the phenomenal success of this National Theatre production staged in 2011 that the filmed version is now being re-shown to satisfy demand. National Theatre have been filling cinemas and other venues throughout the UK with their National Theatre Live performances – you can see a production that is filmed live on the night, a remote theatre experience. Excellent if London is too far to travel, but does the experience lose a little in translation? Can a cinema screen of a live performance satisfy on all counts or is it a frustrating rather second-rate experience?
Having seen the production in the flesh it was lovely to be able to go along to revisit the play a year later. The good news is that everything about the production is very professional and well done. With close ups well planned and angles obviously worked out minute by minute it is hard to believe that you are actually watching a live performance at times and not a real film. At the beginning of the production the camera angles move around a little too frequently making it quite hard to concentrate on the action. However things soon seem to calm down, the filming becomes far less intrusive and it is easy to be to caught up and involved in the play.
One benefit of the cameras is that the audience is far more aware of the spectacular makeup used to create the monster. At the theatre it is not easy to see that the creature is truly gruesome, whereas with close ups on film his appearance has far more impact.
There were some limitations; it is difficult to get both the overhead lighting, consisting of three thousand individual light bulbs arranged in a wedge shape, and the stage in view at the same time. At the theatre you are bombarded by light and heat from above – an effect not possible to replicate in the cinema. The theatrical experience of seeing the monster learn to move is more effective on the stage, without close ups, as he looks small and vulnerable and this extended period of movement works better with the actor naked, rather than the loin cloth swathed version we are treated to here. It seems a small detail but the very nakedness of the monster in the original play performances serves to emphasise his pathetic, newborn state and both shocks and yet seems natural.
The play as ever is held together by the central performances of Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. Here Miller plays the creature and Cumberbatch his creator but the two actors reversed the casting throughout the original theatre run and it has been filmed live both ways round – the opposite casting can be seen later in the summer. The play looks at the story of Frankenstein through the eyes of the monster and we have his take on the situation emphasised throughout – the viewpoint of an outsider rejected by society and learning how evil man can be. Staging is dramatic with no expense spared to create a good show – the revolve is used extensively, with sets appearing and disappearing, and clever but simple effects used to create bold visual images. Creaking dialogue from minor characters is overlooked as we bask in the theatre gold that is two great actors hurling speeches at each other. By the end we have forgiven any shortcomings in the writing, marvelled at the incredible staging and been touched by the final scene. As we trudge off into the night we discuss the play and its concepts; the staging, the ideas, the ambition.
So, despite being not quite theatre as we know it, this is a fine production and one well worth catching. The medium of film works, despite some shortcomings, and the essence of the production is captured well leaving its heart and soul intact. Recommended.
Reverse casting on 19th July and various dates nationwide – see National Theatre website for details
Picture: Catherine Ashmore