The hot ticket for spring 2011 is Danny Boyle's triumphant return to theatre directing with an adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Not only does it have Benedict Cumberbatch, not only does it have Jonny Lee Miller, but they're both playing the Doctor and the Creature! In turns! For anyone who's a fan of either actor, or just intrigued to see how the dynamics differ according to who's who, this crafty gimmick has ensured that Frankenstein is now a doubly hot ticket. And at Wednesday's second press night, the 1,000+ seat Olivier was absolutely crammed to the gills with people curious to see if this production is really worth all the hype.
The casting combo for this particular performance saw Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as the Doctor.
I'm going to be upfront here. I absolutely LOVED this show. I won't deny it had its flaws, which I will be going into shortly, but after a month where I've had to exercise serious willpower to stay awake for an entire production, it was very refreshing to be so unabashedly entertained for two hours.
The atmosphere was set right from the audience's entrance into the theatre. With a dull red light cast on all walls, hundreds of lamps suspended above the audience, and a wonderfully loud bell hanging in the centre of the auditorium, one could be forgiven for not noticing right away the slow revolve of the stage, empty but for a large womblike structure with the clearly defined silhouette of someone slowly moving within.
As play openings go, this was a corker. The birth of the Creature, his teaching himself movement, his exploring his immediate world, his early encounters with other people. This opening section is light on dialogue but thoroughly absorbing to watch. Cumberbatch totters about the stage, looking for all the world like a six foot toddler in the throes of his first steps, with cries of triumph and grunts of exasperation as appropriate. He continues to command the stage for the entire performance; endearing when learning to speak and read, heartbreaking when concerned that people will hate him, threatening when wreaking violence, and all the while projecting a fierce sense of intelligence and isolation. It is a thoroughly committed performance and I could happily have watched the Creature for the entire duration of the play and beyond.
Alas, though, the play is called Frankenstein, and thus there are more characters to consider than simply the nameless Creature. And while the Creature's journey is utterly riveting and very moving to watch, the other cast members unfortunately suffer from being sorely underwritten. Jonny Lee Miller has a good stab at the peculiarly unreadable role of Victor Frankenstein, but to find out if he's truly a skilled performer capable of enthralling an audience of 1,000+, I'm simply going to have find a way to see his take on the Creature. The only other cast members who manage to rise above the script and turn in fine performances are Daniel Millar's Felix, Lizzie Winkler's Agatha, and - above all - Karl Johnson's blind scholar De Lacey. The other characters have so little to work with that the pace drops to almost deadly levels whenever the Creature isn't onstage, and the rest of the play doesn't flow anywhere near as beautifully as the opening sections. The character of Elizabeth in particular is saddled with some of the most absurd, ridiculous, nonsensical, and frustratingly appalling dialogue I have ever heard onstage. While the lack of workable material prevents Naomie Harris from giving a truly good performance, she deserves a lot of credit for being able to say lines like "show me how you are going to give me children" without either falling about laughing or dissolving into tears. And enough has been written about Frankenstein Sr that I shan't bore you and instead shall stick to just confirming the consensus - poor role, disappointing performance.
Fear not though! If you can overlook the dialogue, you're in for an otherwise completely entertaining evening. The play looks and sounds amazing (if only the dialogue were worth listening to, this could have been the first play in a long time to not only suffer a surplus of hype but also more than live up to it). The set is not complicated but successfully represents a large variety of locations. The drum revolve is used with great enthusiasm: it goes round and round, up and down, and it splits into two periodically. Simple wooden walkways successfully conjure up Lake Geneva. An illuminated semi-circle on the back wall becomes a brilliant sunrise. Two bales of hay with ridiculously simple bird effects shouldn't so effectively convey acres of sunny farmland, but they manage it. It can be difficult for a play to fill the vastness of the Olivier, but Frankenstein fits perfectly and looks and sounds beautiful from even the back row of the circle.
While the sound design is particularly wondrous, my absolute favourite aspect of the play is the lighting design. The bank of lamps on the ceiling sometimes evokes bolts of electricity, sometimes lights up to almost obscene brightness, and is even used to create fantastic effects without any of the lamps even being lit. One such effect involves stark spotlights shone through the lamps, which so successfully communicates an Arctic waste that one is almost tempted to put one's coat back on. While some have found much to deride about this production, Bruno Poet's lighting design nonetheless stands forth as an absolute triumph. The music for this production is provided by British electronic group Underworld, who previously worked with Danny Boyle on Trainspotting. While the music is never subtle, it is always fitting: up-to-date, but nonetheless still suitable for the gothic atmosphere.
I have long proclaimed that I would much rather be entertained by a flawed production than bored by one that is technically brilliant. If you're of the same mindset, beg, borrow, steal, or queue up for a dayseat from 6am to obtain a ticket. You must not miss out! If, however, you simply cannot abide a fine production that is let down by a frankly horrific script, then you'd be better off avoiding the Olivier until performances of The Cherry Orchard commence.
Spiritual Successor! Incredible performance from the central creature + Olivier + brilliant technicals + terrible clunker of a script = Frankenstein, or (on a much less clunky level) War Horse.
Date seen: 23rd February 2011