Olivier, 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. We have a famous story, two actors with an interesting personal dynamic – one clearly rising fast and the other never quite making it (I can only think back to Hackers, a time where Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie were on equal billing –how fickle is fate indeed) but the only person who really makes their stamp on this is Boyle. This is a case where style has completely dominated substance. It is filled with bravura moments, flecked with images that live long in the memory but this is not Trainspotting or 127 Hours, both potential flops without barnstorming performances by Ewan McGregor and James Franco respectively. This is closer to Sunshine, an enjoyable film, visually stunning if seen in the cinema but reliant more on Cillian Murphy’s, admittedly piercing, green eyes than any actual acting.
The opening scene sets up something special – it is an actor’s delight, a chance to ‘act’, alone, on the Olivier stage for at least 5 minutes. The Monster emerges naked from a machine clearly designed with the womb in mind. Lee Miller is given the opportunity to become the Monster in front of the eyes of the audience and he absolutely nails it. It is a superb and engaging sight – he is not a ‘nuts and bolts’ Monster but clearly a living, breathing thing. He is lost, alone and totally unable to cope with the reaction of Dr Frankenstein. Sadly this feels the last time that the actors are given free reign. From here on in there is a sense that they are confined by the set – both are good, Cumberbatch inhabits the Scientist with a level of cold detachment, as unable to connect with the Monster as he is with his family, and Lee Miller allows the Monster room to develop the capacity to philosophically spar with his creator without losing its bestial nature, but equally it never feels that we have been allowed to truly engage with them as characters.
And if we look down to the cast there are some questionable moments. It has been a long time since I have seen a play at The National where I have felt any performances were not up to scratch but some of the smaller parts gave impression of having come off the page. In part this is due to the play whipping through the opening scenes in order to get to the more interesting parts; the sacrifice being that these characters were crudely drawn and given only a few lines to build themselves a credible whole. There were the curiously Pinter-influenced tramps and then a flurry of peasants straight out of Ye Olde Renaissance Fair (slightly strange for a play that is set in Victorian times). It is here we get begin to see possible flaws in Boyle’s approach – perhaps he spent to long ensuring that every technological set piece was in order and too little time ensuring that it flowed as a coherent whole? What can be easily done with a jump-cut in cinema takes time to set-up and remove on stage.
This is by no means a bad production; whilst sitting in my seat it was wholly enjoyable and the two hour running time flies past (no interval thankfully). There is no doubt that Boyle is an expert storyteller and knows instinctively what the audience wants. It is also true to say that while you know sitting through Lars Von Triers most recent work is what you should be doing, that doesn’t stop your hand from grabbing The Bourne Identity for the fifth or sixth time. Sometimes you just want to be entertained and Frankenstein is certainly entertaining. Just realise, and don’t question, that what you will be watching will be style over substance. And, luckily, you will be watching a play from one of the modern masters of style.