Frankenstein 1 & 2 – April 2011

10/10

By: Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley

Directed by: Danny Boyle

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Dates: Tuesday 12th and Thursday 14th April 2011

This was another amazing experience from beginning to end. As we were taking our seats, I noticed the mirrored panel hung from the ceiling, with a myriad of light bulbs hung from it. Some were the old fashioned type, some the low energy ones, and some had old-fashioned shades on them. We speculated that there could be all sorts of interesting effects with this set up, and we weren’t wrong.

The set, in fact the whole auditorium, was swathed in textured paper, which reminded me of the set for Fram, and immediately created the impression of an arctic wilderness. Since we knew where the story would end up, that made sense. A large bell was hung over the central aisle, just in front of the balcony, and from time to time one of the cast rang it – boy was it loud! There was background music as well, those low-pitched, thrumming sounds that seemed familiar as a way of suggesting menace, often with an industrial/technological aspect. What I realised second time around was that there were other sounds as well, muffled as from a distance – a man talking, people singing, and then I got it. This was a church service, presumably the reason for Frankenstein’s absence, and an extra nuance to the birth scene – born on a Sunday, during a church service.

I also spotted a coat hanging over on the left wall, but the centrepiece of the initial setting (look away now if you don’t want me to spoil the surprise) was a wooden frame with an artificial womb attached, made of leather or some sort of skin. The strips of skin were cunningly crossed over each other to create a pouch, and inside that pouch something was stirring.

Outside, we’d seen the sign about the auditorium not being opened till fifteen minutes before the performance, and Steve knew right away that meant someone would be on the stage at the beginning. So we weren’t surprised by this so much as enthralled by the imagery. Also, we couldn’t remember which way round we’d booked for these – would it be Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller emerging from the womb today? (It was Benedict first, then Jonny.)

Whoever it was, we could just see that they were writhing about very slowly within the womb, with the occasional hand or foot being pressed against the skin and becoming easier to see. The frame was on the revolve, and moved round quite a bit during this pre-performance performance, ending up on the right hand side of the stage. With the audience all settled in their seats (we were warned to come early), the lights went down, and the sound of a heartbeat started. Next thing, the lights in the overhead panel lit up, flashing across the ceiling, and the creature began to emerge from its pouch, first one arm, then another, jerkily responding to the lightning flashes until it flopped out completely onto the floor.

The next section was an extended session of movement work. First twitching, then flailing, the creature began to move across the stage, attempting to get its body to do something, but was it remembering movement, or was it finding out for the first time? It became quite painful to watch its struggle, and then gradually it managed a greater degree of control, and started to get to its feet. Naturally, there were failures at first, but the creature’s determination finally got it up and walking, albeit in a very strange way. We also had the first chance to laugh, not so much at the creature, but at its delight at being able to walk, and its comical gait.

With great delight, the creature began to run around the stage, finally collapsing back down near the pouch, and it’s at this point that Frankenstein arrives. He goes over to the creature, presumably thinking it’s fallen out of the pouch, and is horrified when it moves. (What did he think he was making in his lab? It’s not as if he hasn’t seen it before.) Snarling at it to get back, and obey him, he throws his coat over it and runs off. Not a nice man, then.

The poor creature only wanted some affection, some nurturing, but sadly life isn’t always that kind. He manages to walk out of the lab – the location isn’t as specific as some of the later scenes – and then we have the only bit that I didn’t care for so much in this production. The heavy beat of the music starts up, and a mechanical doodly-whatsit appears through the central doors at the back. It has large cog wheels, emits a great deal of steam, and the various cast members are riding it or walking beside it. I had no idea what was meant by this – it all seemed very surreal, although afterwards I reckoned it represented the town of Ingolstadt.

Second time around I found it much clearer. The contraption appeared to be a train, and when it stopped the workers jumped off and started using their hammers. Sparks streamed out from under the train, and then the work stopped and the men and women lined up as the train was moved back. The women appeared to be prostitutes, and one of them, who was having a bit of client trouble, is grateful when the creature scares that man off. Mind you, she’s not too keen on the man in the cloak when she catches sight of his face, and as he’s not yet able to speak properly, it’s perhaps understandable that they see him as a monster. We, on the other hand, are very much on his side. I know I was.

When the mechanical gubbins is removed, there’s a strip of grass laid down the centre of the stage. Now the creature gets to experience the countryside, starting with the dawn, using lights and a large orange disc on the back wall. Then some birds fly up from the bushes, singing beautifully, and he gets soaked by a shower of rain. He’s been trying to find something to eat, poor lad, and he even tries the grass, but spits it out immediately. (Second time around, he eats it with pleasure, then takes a dump.) He finds a book in one of the coat pockets, and can’t eat that either, although he does find out that it has pages.

Later, some men come along with a fire and cooking pot, and once he’s scared them off, he tries his hand at eating the meat. Finding the pot too hot to handle, he realises that the spoon is touchable, and although the meat is also very hot, he does at least get some food down him. The fire dies down, and he uses the bag the men left as a pillow and falls asleep. The men come back with sticks, though, and give him a beating, before taking their stuff away, so again he has to move on. (Second time around, I noticed he gets some clothes from the bag as the men are grabbing it from him.)

A see-through hut appears beside the grass, and we meet the old, blind man and his son and daughter-in-law. While the couple go off to clear a field of stones, the creature sneaks in and finally finds someone who isn’t terrified of him. This section shows the creature learning to speak and to read. There’s humour in it, with some of the creature’s comments, and the standard of his reading matter – Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example – but then his teacher was a university professor, so naturally he focuses on the classics.

The creature also sees the young couple kissing and canoodling, which leads him to fantasise about a possible partner for himself. A ‘rock’ appears at the front of the stage, where the walkway down the central aisle meets the stage, and metamorphoses into a beautiful woman, though made up and dressed to resemble the creature. She dances with him, he dreams, and then she’s gone.  This situation holds out the possibility of a better life, but sadly, despite the old man’s promises, the son and daughter aren’t so ready to accept the creature, and drive him off, thinking he’s a threat to the old man. One disadvantage of having learned so much from the classics is that the creature’s role models are dramatic kings and heroes, whose natural inclination when faced with an attack or injury is to fight back and revenge themselves. And so the creature commits his first crime; he burns down the hut with the family inside.

Having learned to read, the creature now knows from the book he found in the coat pocket, that he was ‘made’ by Victor Frankenstein, who lives in Geneva. He immediately heads for that city, and the set shifts, with the hut removed and the grass covered by wooden paths which are lowered down to the stage. As this is being set up, there’s a little group at the front of the stage, some adults and children, and one of the women puts a blindfold on one of the boy’s eyes. They head off and re-emerge on one of the wooden walkways – they’re off to play a game of blind man’s buff. When the boy is left on the end of the walkway, the creature appears, and again the child isn’t afraid of him, although as he’s told not to turn round, he doesn’t actually see the man he’s talking to. When the creature finds out that the boy is William Frankenstein, Victor’s brother, he snatches him as a means of getting to Victor.

The rest of the party are soon out looking for the boy, along with Victor and William’s father. Victor is remarkably tactless, telling his fiancée, Elizabeth, that she was responsible for losing him. Given that he’s spent all his time skulking in his room since coming back from Ingolstadt, you’d think their relationship would be on the rocks, but amazingly, Elizabeth is still keen to marry the man. Anyway, the boy’s body turns up in a boat that floats over to their side of the lake, and there are pages from Victor’s missing journal beside him. Victor knows what he has to do.

He heads up the mountain, and soon meets up with the creature. This encounter is pivotal, and was very well done. A semi-circle opens up on the revolve, at the back, presumably to represent a crevasse or cliff, but otherwise, the stage is bare. (The grass strips were taken up with the wooden walkways.) Victor and his creation meet, fight, argue, and eventually, whether by accident or design, the creature provides Victor with the perfect temptation, the chance to create another living being, but this time, to get it right! Pride was always his downfall.

Their debate covered some interesting areas, such as the responsibility of the scientist toward the repercussions of his work, and how responsible the creature could be for his actions, given the lack of nurture and education when he was ‘born’. Frankenstein certainly comes across as a callous, arrogant chap, with a great mind perhaps, but little understanding of the consequences of his actions, and a tendency to pin the blame on others when things go wrong. The creature has difficulty handling his emotions, and lashes out in a rage when he doesn’t get what he wants, but then he is a child, despite the adult body, and needs guidance to help him adjust to his own peculiar brand of life. Overall, my sympathies were with the creature, and my only regret is that Victor doesn’t get his proper comeuppance at the end.

However, he does agree to the creature’s request that he make another creature, a female one, so that his original could have a companion. Only we know that he won’t keep his promise, you can just tell. With this promise, the creature agrees to leave Victor and his family alone, and scampers off up the mountain. Victor heads off, and personally, I thought this would a suitable place for an interval, but I’m not directing the piece so I don’t get a say.

Victor goes straight back to his father to inform him that he, Victor, is leaving immediately. Never mind the death of his brother and the funeral, never mind his fiancée, whom he’s kept waiting for five years already, he’s off and that’s that. His father does at least insist that Victor give the news to Elizabeth himself, which is how I know that she’s still keen to marry him. Poor girl. She’s even willing to go with him and help with his studies, despite her lack of education and not knowing one end of a Bunsen burner from the other. Turning down her offer of help, rather churlishly I thought, he does at least promise to come back and settle down with her, and even give her some regular kids, but with his track record? At least we now know he’s off to Oxford, to study in the libraries there, and then to Scotland, a terrible place, completely unsuitable for a young lady. How we laughed. So when the revolve turns again, and his father’s study (with a strangely sloping floor) moves round to the back, it’s no surprise to see a stone built Scottish cottage emerge from the gloom.

Once arrived, Frankenstein’s first action is to enquire of his two helpers where he can get a supply of freshly dead women. An unusual request, which troubles the younger man, while the older one is keen to have his conscience assuaged by the assurance that it’s all for medical research which will be of great benefit to humanity. That, and a purse of money, seals the deal.

At the dead of night, and right at the front of the stage, they exhume the body of a recently deceased young woman, and take her off to Frankenstein. Soon, we see a familiar wooden frame appear in the cottage, and the figure draped on it is unmistakably female. When there’s a knock on the door – a final delivery of fresh body parts – Frankenstein quickly conceals his work with a blanket. Then, as he rests, he has a dream where his brother, William, rises out of one of the sacks just delivered and questions Victor about his work. He asks a lot of questions, and gradually they come round to the area that concerns Victor most – will the creatures be able to breed (Victor supposes they will), and what will happen when they do? This is clearly a case of Victor’s subconscious trying to get a message through to his waking mind, and for the first time it seems that Frankenstein is starting to consider the consequences of his actions.

When the creature arrives, bounding into the room through the crumbling roof, he’s delighted with the she-creature, not yet fully animated, but able to walk already. Victor questions the creature about love (I did wonder what the man knew about the subject – we’ve seen precious little evidence of that quality in his character so far) and finally seems satisfied that the creature really does have the capacity to love his future companion.

Telling the creature to wait while he completes the animation process, Frankenstein takes her back behind the screen to finish the job. With the dream fresh in his mind, however, he’s decided that the risk of these creatures breeding and populating the world with what he presumably regards as ‘corrupt’ offspring was too great, and so he kills the woman rather than giving her life and the creature his companion. Naturally enough, the creature doesn’t take too kindly to this, and swears to revenge himself on Victor’s own beloved. Finally, Victor sees the danger to Elizabeth, and instantly decides to rush back to Geneva and marry her.

Back in Geneva, the study has now become the bride’s bedroom, where Elizabeth is preparing to receive her new husband on their wedding night. There’s some humour in the conversation with her maid, and then Victor sweeps in with two armed guards, not the usual companions for an eager new husband. He’s made sure that the grounds have been thoroughly searched, there are guards everywhere, and yet instead of staying with Elizabeth to enjoy their first night together, he’s off again the check the perimeter, or some such. (Second time round, I got that he intends to kill the creature first, before enjoying a night with his new bride. And they called the man a genius.)

I was totally surprised when, after he left and Elizabeth was on her own, the creature leapt from the bed where he’d been hiding under the covers. A good trick – I certainly didn’t spot it in advance. He grabs Elizabeth to stop her screaming, but lets her go when she promises to be quiet. This is the first time he’s spoken to a kind person since the old man, a long time ago, and she’s probably the first to treat him kindly despite his looks. Even so, he’s too strongly hooked on revenge for her kindness to have any effect. After admitting that one of the hard lessons he’s learned is how to lie, he throws her on the bed and rapes her. Frankenstein rushes in at this point, but instead of shooting the creature, stands there in horror, giving the creature time to finish the job by killing Elizabeth, after which he pulls up his trousers, and escapes. Victor is keen to take Elizabeth to his room, where he knows he can revive her, being so recently killed, but his father and the other attendants restrain him, thinking him mad. So Elizabeth is gone forever.

The final scene is in the arctic. The creature arrives, puts down his bundle, and takes out some silverware for a meal. With the central revolve now lowered, there’s a flat surface for Frankenstein to drag his sledge over. (In fact, he and his sled rise up as the flat stage is replaced.) All the while the creature is explaining the situation, how he left Geneva and travelled over Europe, through Russia, up to the frozen expanse of ice and snow, with Frankenstein always following. Now he’s caught up again, he can eat the food the creature has put out for him, but the effort seems to be too much, and he’s suddenly still. The creature cradles him in his arms, feeling the loss of the only person in his life, and tries to revive him with the wine. No response. The creature grieves, and then Victor suddenly comes back to life, and the chase continues. This time, as Victor follows the creature off the back of the stage, they’re heading towards a brilliant display of lights, shining in our eyes through the door at the back. Rapturous applause.

And so to round two. Of course, the first time round was always going to have the benefit of surprise, and the second viewing didn’t have the same emotional charge as a result, but then I did get more out of the piece the second time around, and I find that it’s those performances that have stayed with me more.

I’ve mentioned some of the differences above, so now I want to concentrate on the variations in the central performances. I felt both actors did a good job of both parts. I know some people commented on the wig that Jonny Lee Miller was wearing, but it didn’t bother me. Benedict Cumberbatch had opted for a bald cap to play the creature, so that he had his own hair for the part of Frankenstein, while Jonny Lee Miller had gone the other way – fine with me. Benedict’s creature seemed to have less personality, and took considerably longer to find his feet, literally and metaphorically. His opening sequence of learning to move took several minutes more than Jonny’s version, and was harder to watch. Benedict’s creature seemed to be more of a blank slate for a longer time, and I think there was less humour as a result. Jonny’s creature developed quicker and had a more recognisable personality sooner, which engaged my sympathy on a personal level, whereas first time round I was sympathetic in a more general sense, as I would be for any creature that was treated so badly.

As for the Victors, Benedict’s version was more about the intellectual challenge, while Jonny’s was stronger in terms of the arrogance – I really didn’t like his Victor as a person, while I might have got on with Benedict’s, at least for a short while. I’m still not sure why Frankenstein doesn’t shoot the creature during Elizabeth’s rape and murder, but from the second performance I’ve reckoned that he may not have been willing to kill the very being he, and he alone, has created. Arrogance again.

So overall this was a doubly fantastic experience – not only a really good version of the Frankenstein story, but two slightly different interpretations of it. Brilliant.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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