Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A different creature - Frankenstein at the National

Whilst this is primarily a wildlife blog I do allow myself to wander off topic occasionally. This is one such occasion and describes an event certainly worthy of record, a night at the theatre last Friday, courtesy of some very kind and good friends.
Having enjoyed a wholesome vegetarian casserole in the National Theatre's Olivier Bistro and gazed at the twinkling lights of St Paul's and the City of London from the veranda, we took our seats in the stalls as soon as the theatre doors opened. The stage was sparse as Underworld's overture laid a sonic atmosphere to the set, a single bell tolling sporadically in the auditorium. The audience were taking their seats in good time, their eyes drawn to the gently illuminated stage, a heavy wooden frame with stretched skins slowly rotating as a centre-piece. As performance time approached, the lighting dimmed further and a pulse was added to the soundtrack, movement within the membrane now clear to see. A blinding flash of light, a deafening crescendo and a head pierced the taught drum-skin, then the body fell to the stage floor - Johnny Lee Miller as the creature had made his entrance, scarred, sown, bloodied and naked. Captivated, we watched as the creature gradually became aware of his limbs, a jerky and almost gollum-like being, learning balance then eventually careering around the stage, guttural sounds adding to the alien effect. Mesmerising stuff.

From this dramatic opening the play unfolded, first Frankenstein discovering that life had come to his creation, then after its escape, villagers frightened and brutal in their rejection of it. Not until the discovery of a blind man in an isolated farmstead did the creature find any kindness and over time he learned to read and write under the blind professor's tutelage. Rejection again though when introduced to the professor's son and daughter in law and the first steps toward the poisoning of the creature's character had come to pass as he delivered retribution to their violent reaction. 
The story rolled on, the educated creature now pursuing the attentions of his creator, seeking love and companionship the only way he could envisage, through the assembly of another of his kind, tempting Frankenstein through his ego to fulfil his desires. Beautifully acted out by Messrs Millar and Cumberbatch, the entwined relationship and twisted responsibilities of their bond were explored with dialogue and action, onward to the creation and destruction of the female creature and then as a climactic counterbalance, the post wedding meeting between creature and Frankenstein's wife.
Mary Shelley's story, born on the banks of Lake Geneva in the company of her new husband and that gothic rogue Lord Byron, is given fresh and contemporary life in this extraordinary presentation. The constituent creative layers of script, staging, lighting and music, assembled by that master director Danny Boyle, deliver the perfect atmosphere and provide the highest of platforms for two of Britain's finest young actors in Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch to present the story. That they rotate the roles of creator and created on a nightly basis no doubt allows them individually to explore fully their linked relationship and adds a level of understanding not possible in singular casting.
I make no pretentions as to being a qualified theatrical viewer, but can only share my view that this was dramatic tour de force in all respects, memories of which are ingrained now in my psyche. Having been privileged to have heard snippets from the process of the production's creation over preceding months I couldn't wait to see this play. That it delivered to my expectations is an understatement. I was enthralled by every moment of its two hour, uninterrupted running time and lift my hat to the highly talented ensemble from all disciplines that created it. To have been part of such a creative process and see the fruits of ones labours come to fruition so successfully must be special indeed.