So it's the first of this year's theatre blockbusters for me with the National Theatre's Frankenstein, marking Danny Boyle's return to theatre directing and with an alternating cast in the lead roles: Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch share the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his creation. I've got tickets for both configurations (with about a month's break in between) and first up is the version most people have been calling the better of the two, with Miller in the lead role of the Creature. For the first time I tried out the cheap, front-of-the-stalls seats at the Olivier and certainly in this case not having a wide overall view didn't lessen the impact of this spectacle as far as we could tell.
Nick Dear's adaptation does something you simply couldn't do with a less well-known story, ditching the beginning of the novel and beginning with the Creature's birth; as the audience enters Miller is already on stage in an enormous womb-like structure and the play begins with him bursting out of it naked, spending a silent ten minutes or so trying to get to his feet. It's an incredible physical performance to open the show with, and in fact the National have taken to emailing audiences a few days before they see the play to warn them not to be late as the start's the best bit (I'm paraphrasing, but not that much.) As ait's one of the most sustained and full-on I've seen, Miller dragging himself along the stage in ways that made me think he must be doing himself some damage down there. Then I remembered that it's been up Angelina Jolie, this is probably a picnic in comparison.
Boyle brings many of his movie collaborators with him and the show has an accordingly cinematic feel. Set designer Mark Tildesley uses the drum stage sparingly and to strong effect, throwing in spectacle in other ways - a mirrored ceiling of light bulbs hanging over the stalls glows very hot as the Creature is born. At quieter moments the weaknesses in Dear's script are more apparent - the scenes of fluffy, doomed couple Agatha and Felix (Lizzie Winkler and Daniel Millar) are so twee that instead of feeling sorry for them when the Creature eventually kills them you're just desperately relieved you don't have to cringe at them any more. For the most part the sheer theatricality of it all works perfectly, even if at one point Underworld's music and Bruno Poet's lighting seem to suggest the show's about to morph into The Lion King.
Cumberbatch is also a natural as Victor but you can see why they might need to alternate the roles if they wanted a "name" for them both, as the show is the Creature's to steal, from his silent first scene to his later development into a Milton-quoting philosopher. Ironically, Andy had expressed a preference for seeing this casting configuration because he prefers Cumberbatch and assumed Victor would be the larger role. Instead by the end he was singing Jonny Lee Miller's praises as well.
Frankenstein by Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley is in repertory until the 2nd of May at the National Theatre's Olivier; returns only, but the performances on 17th and 24th March will be broadcast to Cinemas as part of National Theatre Live.