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Nat Theatre Live (YouTube) review: Frankenstein

Frankenstein, National Theatre Live (YouTube) until May 7

Having reviewed Rona Munro’s production of Frankenstein at the Belgrade last October, I wanted to see how the NT’s production compared. The National Theatre's is a starry affair. Directed by Danny Boyle, and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (re-uniting with the director of Trainspotting), this production is also enhanced by superlative lighting and staging - but of course, that’s what money buys you.

It cuts to the chase; no lengthy, over-familiar preamble to the monster’s creation, here he emerges on stage from a large embryo, ripping the fabric at first tentatively, then more frantically.

And what an emergence! A spell-binding sequence follows of great physical theatre, as Miller’s monster literally finds his feet and learns how humans move. Miller alternated the part with Cumberbatch for each performance, and I’m intrigued to imagine how the latter would have presented this. From this opening, it’s clear this is the Monster’s story, and he is a vehicle for our sympathy even when at his murderous worst. Frankenstein, as performed by Cumberbatch, is an icy, detached character, somewhat an archetype of a man devoted to science, who has neglected every other aspect of his life. His creation however, delights in physicality, is instinctive, and reaches out to others in spite of their hostility towards him. They are two sides of the same coin, forever bound to each other, ultimately in the deathly pursuit among the polar wastes. This is an entertaining, sometimes mesmerising, two hours - but not without its faults.

As a movie director, Boyle presents stunning visuals (a steam-punk train accompanied by pyrotechnics was a personal favourite), but more mundane aspects of stagecraft are neglected with the actors too static or moving without purpose.

The script too at times is surprisingly flat and clunky, as if the attention lay elsewhere in the production. I wrote of the Belgrade’s production that it was surprisingly ambitious for B2, in terms of its set design and production, but the NT is clearly in a different league. Nor could the Belgrade draw on the same level of acting talent, although a small cast playing multiple roles can make a production dynamic, and they did in Munro’s version.

Her centring of the play around the young Mary Shelley, feeling both delight and dread with regard to her creative spirit, gave coherence to her play but also a geniunely new and interesting perspective on a very familiar story. Unlike the NT production, the stage was well used at all times and there was freshness about much of the dialogue. So I think it is the case that those productions you know you will almost certainly not get a ticket to see, that will be talked about and written about as "events" as much as plays, don’t necessarily present us with better theatre.

In lockdown, I’m looking forward to visiting the Belgrade again as much as the RSC.

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