Frankenstein by Nick Dear after Mary Shelley – National Theatre (Olivier)
Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein was staged in 2012 when we did not yet know how much more famous both he and co-lead Benedict Cumberbatch would become. Still, it was quite a coup for the National to bag this striking adaptation of Frankenstein. Two things make it particularly worth rewatching, while also underlining the limitations of watching theatre on YouTube. Nick Dear’s script goes back to Mary Shelley’s novel focusing on the source material in a way ignored by most versions. The story is, therefore, both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, showing us something we think we already know. It turns out we imagine it differently to Shelley. The production is, above all else, about the visual coups. Making spectacular use of the cavernous Olivier stage, the extreme geography of the play is communicated through simple, yet highly memorable designs – a glowing amniotic sac from which the Creature emerges, the translucent cottage in which he learns to speak, the open fields, Lake Geneva and, finally, the North Pole. Mark Tildesley’s set designs are truly epic, bolstered by a spectacular light installation by Bruno Poet consisting of thousands of flickering, blinding filament bulbs – the spark of life itself.
The roots of Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony tableaux can be seen on stage, with groups of illustrative factory workers and locals setting the scene. There are times when the visual seems to dominate, squeezing out the drama for which we are kept waiting. The opening scene, as Cumberbatch (in this screening – he and Jonny Lee Miller swapped the roles of Doctor and Creature) learns to control his limbs, stand and walk, goes on for some time after we’ve got the message and feels like a rehearsal room exercise transposed to the stage in its entirety. However, when the key scenes arrive they are compelling. In particular, the Creature’s scenes with the excellent Karl Johnson as De Lacey, his blind teacher, are tense and those with his fiancee Elizabeth (Naomie Harris) intensely awkward. Frankenstein creates humans, but completely fails to understand them. Dear adaptation cleverly focuses on the plight of an unnamed, unloved man who is made into the thing people fear through the hatred he encounters. The final scenes, as Doctor and Creature stumble blindly on across the Arctic tundra, are surreal and symbolic of their disastrous relationship that, once created, can never be unmade.