Something’s stirring in the depths of the cinema…and it ain’t the remains of a sodden bag of cheesy nachos. Ye gods, can it be…? Surely not? Oh no, no – IT’S ALIVE!!!!
Yes in case you hadn’t guessed I went to see Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein the other week. I missed it on the stage but luckily for me it’s been filmed for National Theatre Live; a scheme that allows us to watch theatre productions in local cinemas.
Now first of all I have to say something about the cinema I saw this in. I had a choice of all the local Odeons and Vues and Cineworlds, but I decided on the Curzon in Clevedon, North Somerset. This is simply the most amazing cinema I’ve ever been to. It first opened in 1912 and is one of the world’s oldest working cinemas. It’s now owned and run by the local community and shows a mixture of new and classic films. The inside is spectacular; it still has original (along with replica) Art Deco features throughout and you can even climb the stairs to see an exhibition about its history and visit the old projection room (I did wonder if I was supposed to be in there for a moment but I think it was okay!). In the actual auditorium there’s an organ in front of the screen (my mum reliably informs me sometimes it’s played!) and a little kiosk that lights up and sells you snacks.
[the outside of the Curzon taken with Instagram]
So the Curzon seemed the appropriate venue to watch Frankenstein somehow, with its fusion of new and old – and Danny Boyle’s interpretation certainly takes Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel and, well, whacks the viewer round the face with it repeatedly. Albeit in a good way! The set is captivating – hundreds of flickering lights hang over a womb-like structure sat in the centre of the stage and a heartbeat starts to reverberate…something is about to be born! The creature burst out of its motherless womb and emerges into the world: naked (well almost apart from a pair of pants), confused, terrified. Not a daddy or mummy in sight. And this is the angle Boyle’s production (and Dear’s script) takes; we start with the creature and his loneliness. We’re forced to watch as he slides and struggles across the stage for surely a good ten minutes before the errant parent, Frankenstein, finally arrives only to drive his “son” away in revulsion. I must admit I thought of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser at this point – you know, the bit when the skinless Frank newly back from hell pulls himself across the floor.
*** plot spoilers ahead!! ***
Of course this is a departure from Shelley’s novel where we only hear the creature’s voice in the centre, once he’s already started to torment his creator and murder those Frankenstein loves. But with Boyle we sympathise immediately with the ‘wretch’ as we follow his miserable journey, spurned by pretty much everyone he meets from day one. No wonder he descends into such a murderous rage. But this change in structure makes for some interesting audience effects. In Shelley’s novel we only get to know the creature once he’s murdered Frankenstein’s younger brother William; we find out what the creature is capable of first but still come to love/forgive him. However in Boyle’s production we witness more of a fall – we move from feeling empathy and sorrow for him to pure revulsion – it’s hard to continue to sympathise with a character who rapes then murders the one person (Elizabeth) who’s trying to help him. Whoah – hold up. This never happened – there was no funny business in the book! Well yes, not exactly, but I do think it holds true to the text in essence at least. The creepiest line in the novel has to be the creature’s veiled threat “I shall be with you on your wedding night” that he snarls when Frankenstein destroys the creature’s bride (and I love the fact Frankenstein doesn't even consider the threat to be directed at his new wife! It's always ME, ME, ME with that inventor). But Boyle’s interpretation is a logical one that works with the sexual implications of that line. Still – it’s pretty uncomfortable viewing and nearly put me off my Maltesers.
The version I saw had Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankestein and Johnny Lee Miller as the monster – they swapped roles on consecutive nights. The pairing really worked, and brought out the textual echoes between the two characters – the delicate relationship between master and slave – as we become unsure of who’s actually in control. This relationship is drawn to its full extent in the final scenes as Frankenstein chases (well, drags himself along the ground) after his nemesis. The monster seems to be in full control here. In a topsy-turvy reflection of the birthing scene the creature now walks tall and pulls the strings as the creator scrabbles around on the floor. But the creature still needs his creator – without each other they are nothing. Everything else dear to both of them has been destroyed and they only live to torment/love each other.
One thing I really loved about this version is its sly sense of humour. Despite the creature’s articulate use of language he uses a broken, halting, garbled pronunciation throughout – definitely a few laughs when he recited Milton word perfect. Elizabeth is great too – she’s a much more forceful and solid character than in the novel. When she asks to travel with Frankenstein and help with his studies he says she wouldn’t understand. She retorts that it’s only because she’s been denied a proper education, what with being a woman and all. However I would say the script’s a bit dodgy in places – especially in the beginning (“Piss off” yells a swarthy type at the creature. It’s all for a gag later so the monster can echo it back to the old Delacey) and sometimes it verged on the edge of being a bit too self-aware and forced.
And the experience of watching theatre on screen at the cinema? I can honestly say I didn’t feel distanced or unconnected at all. In fact the varied use of other camera angles among the long shots allowed perhaps a better view than live at certain moments.
So this was a visual feast – dynamic, fast moving, shocking and true to the ethos of the novel. Even if the dialogue was a bit cringe-worthy in places.