based on the novel by Mary Shelley
at the Olivier Theatre, Sunday 17th April 2011
In a world where more and more becomes scientifically possible, we must ask questions about the ethics behind further discoveries. This is the main message in Danny Boyle’s spectacular production of Frankenstein, even though a lot of press attention and criticism has focussed on the dual personalities of Frankenstein and his monster. 2011 is the perfect time to be asking questions about scientific discoveries, and even though Nick Dear’s script is little more than flaccid throughout, Boyle does a sterling job of realising a vivid world in which science can do anything.
The basic story of Shelley’s novel is known to pretty much everyone; a scientist creates a living, thinking creature which proceeds to perform atrocities, forcing said doctor to question himself and his methods. The intricacies of plot, however, are unknown to many, perhaps because Shelley’s writing style leaves much to be desired and many people put the book down after the first few pages. Even with this bad starting point, however, Nick Dear’s script is poor. Riddled with cliché one minute (“I’m blind you know”) and moving to great exposé the next (the creature’s final speech), Dear only just manages to take us through the plot without losing an audience completely to bad writing. But then perhaps this is useful to the production; a poor script allows Boyle’s direction to shine through all the more.
Everything about this production offers spectacle. The first ten minutes see a lone creature finding his feet, and come to a blistering close as a mechanical engine hurls its way across the stage. This opening epitomises the next hundred minutes or so, giving the audience a showcase of what the Olivier theatre can do as Boyle switches between careful emotional direction and all-out, unashamed special effects.
Mark Tildesley’s set is nothing short of stunning. Entire rooms and houses appear from below or above the stage, and an air of a primitive cave is evoked right out into the auditorium, suggesting the beginnings of life before civilisation. The clean, ethereal nature of the scenes set in Geneva contrasts harshly with the dark, earthy feel of Scotland. Bruno Poet’s lighting is nothing short of superb, especially his central array of bulbs which flicker and buzz above the audience’s heads. Underworld’s music is also extraordinary, supporting the emotion portrayed on stage while adding an extra, more otherworldly layer to events.
A strong ensemble do a good job with Dear’s script, managing to inject at least a little motivation and nuance into the words. Naomie Harris is touching as Elizabeth (Frankentein’s fiancée), offering a counterpoint to the inquisitive nature of the creature as she asks her husband-to-be to explain his work. Benedict Cumberbatch lends himself perfectly to the role of Frankenstein, showing a man slowly coming to terms with his terrible act but always remaining human. Jonny Lee Miller’s creature is captivating, starting life as a brute, but through brutish acts becoming more knowledgable about the moral world. At one particular point, just after the creature rapes and kills Elizabeth, we see the roles switch; Cumberbatch becomes the monster as Miller is the only one who understands the situation fully.
This production pulls no punches, revelling in its own theatricality and being proud to pull of such an unabashed spectacle. By the end of the play the faults in Dear’s script are eclipsed by the sheer audacity of Boyle’s staging, which draws us in with brave performances and a vivacious design. This is a production which appeals to the eyes and ears on a basic, visceral level, rather than an intellectual one. And in doing so, Boyle perhaps is making a clever point; we are most ourselves when in touch with our roots and our instincts. Everything else is simply filler.