Whose Frankenstein is it anyway?

Frankenstein : National Theatre, 14 April 2011

Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein…or is it Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein, wait a minute isn’t it Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? How about Nick Dear? He adapted the book after all. These questions are at the heart of what is essentially a solid, spectacular if slightly emotionally cold reworking of the classic ‘monster’ novel. This is a production overwhelmed at times by its celebrity. There can be few directors as hot in Hollywood right now as Danny Boyle. His versatility and formal inventiveness can be seen driving his work, from making a filmable version of Trainspotting through turning a story set in the Indian slums into a Hollywood smash (certainly no mean feat) before giving a true-life tale about a man who gets stuck by himself for 127 Hours a kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory shot in the arm (pun only marginally intended). Like many British film directors he has a strong grounding in the theatre and his return was always likely to be an ‘event’.

Could Boyle have returned to any other theatre but the Olivier? Where else could possibly have contained his whirlwind imagination? That vast, empty stage has stumped many previous directors. It is comically large, the actors appearing almost as matchstick men; sets that look as if they could have been pulled out of a Victorian dolls house. But part of the joy of the Olivier is seeing how they tackle the challenge. In the case of Frankenstein, having a soundtrack created by Underworld (another tick in the celebrity box) certainly helps. Their pulsing score drives much of the action and from the opening moment seems to be in tune with the heartbeat of the Monster (in this production, Jonny Lee Miller). It tones down but does not remove the darker beats of their best albums, and fills the theatre with a mechanical baroqueness. This is cathedral music as reinvented by the Futurists; it is thrillingly industrial and works in harmony with a set that seems to half an eye on the ever fertile steam punk market (how else to explain the emergence of a train seemingly assembled from cogs and random pieces of metal – a superb piece of theatre that is only let down by the questionably need for it in the plot.

The set makes full use of the Olivier’s malleability – the stage lifts and recedes as needed; to form cliffs, houses and a suitably windswept and remote Scottish island where Frankenstein retreats to build the Monster his mate. There seems little doubt that Boyle relishes the challenge of making an epic story work on an epic space. It also seems likely that, unlike some directors returning to theatre, Boyle is of that rare breed that has learnt from his work in film and seeks to apply that to the stage.

And in this lies the crux of the problem…<<Full Review continues here>>.

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