A friend’s intention to go see the National Theatre Live screening of Frankenstein this afternoon prompted me to tag along, and am I ever glad I didn’t miss this masterpiece! I’ve been a fan of this story since reading Mary Shelley‘s novel while at uni (this was extra-curricular and yes, I’m that big a nerd!). I have also been impressed by a film adaptation, namely Kenneth Branagh‘s 1994 one, which really brought the novel to life, but I cannot say that either of these seemed more pertinent to my own experience of the world than this play.
Nick Dear‘s script is a fascinating piece of material. A long portion of the beginning of the play proceeds with very few words, and as a playwright I know how difficult it is to craft a play without words. It is, in this instance, essential that this portion of the play not be crowded with words, not only for the sake of the story, but also to draw the focus to Frankenstein’s creation, rather than Frankenstein. It establishes a connection with this character that grounds the rest of the story, and really does take it to a different place from where Mary Shelley positioned her reader.
And it is this positioning that really establishes Nick Dear’s play as a twenty-first century product. The play insists that the audient be confronted by the ethics of creation and the assumption of scientific logic as the supreme voice of reason. And yet, it does this in the absence of a divine. Humankind, refreshingly, is not repositioned as god (as seems to be the fashion), but instead as a more humble, responsible denizen of the world, such as would not have been considered in the early 19th century. Several critical moments of realisation for Victor Frankenstein, played superbly by Benedict Cumberbatch in the version I saw, underpin this reading, and it is the sign of a talented playwright that the character can be so fully formed, and yet still embody such lofty notions without a little compromise.
But all that is very philosophical for a Sunday afternoon. The real joy is seeing these themes explored with such unassuming grace. The set seems to remodel itself with ease (which of course indicates that there is nothing at all easy about it), and the music likewise supports these amazing performers to create magic. The NT Live recording of course doesn’t quite emulate what must be an amazing effect created by what must be thousands of incandescent globes above the stage and auditorium.
What’s really impressive, though, is that a stage production is able to be translated to screen as well as this. Apart from a few moments when the editing left me feeling that a cut had been rushed, and what even the most pedestrian of actors (which these performers certainly are not) would have treated as a pause or silence was instead cut abruptly to the next bit of action, the translation of a stage production into, essentially, a film that can be screened anywhere around the world, is remarkable. I am astounded by the way it has worked, and although I had some hesitation about jumping on the NT Live bandwagon, if this is an indication of what they’re doing, I’m a convert.