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Saturday, 8 November 2014

National Theatre Live: Danny Boyle's Frankenstein (Encore) Review

As ODEON's season of encore screenings of the National Theatre's most lauded play comes to an end, we offer up our definitive verdict.
"This is your universe, Frankenstein!"

In the defence of Victor Frankenstein's iconic creation - played by Elementary's Jonny Lee Miller in the version of Danny Boyle's much-praised 2011 production we were lucky enough to experience on-screen at ODEON Maidenhead last week - he couldn't possibly have known quite how false his sentiments seemed to the audience at large as they were projected out of his grotesquely-scarred mouth. Much as Miller's exquisitely-portrayed incarnation might have seen himself as representing the solitary occupant of a universe governed only by the scientific principles (or lack thereof) which led his creator to endow him with the spark of life, the reality soon became altogether different as the audience - at least in this instance, though I would imagine the same could have been said of all of the preceding performances - inevitably found themselves immersed in a simultaneously historically detached and disconcertingly familiar narrative universe that raised just as many questions regarding our race's intertwined concern with morality and the limitations of our scientific prowess as the esteemed source material did when Mary Shelly first débuted her unforgettable contribution to the realms of gothic in the early days of the 19th Century.

Although it perhaps shouldn't have come as such a great surprise given the number of times both performers have demonstrated their near-unparalleled conviction and tonal versatility, that Benedict Cumberbatch - who here took on the role of Victor, an infinitely interpretable construct who here shared striking parallels with Cumberbatch's incarnation of Sherlock Holmes more as a fascinating result of Boyle's intricately-crafted script than of any conscious effort on the Imitation Game thespian's part to highlight such inherent representational similarities - agreed to take on one of the show's leading roles alongside Miller and Skyfall's Naomie Harris doubtless provided Boyle - whose direction of proceedings is every iota as masterful as his work on both Slumdog Millionaire and the immensely well-received London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony - with no insubstantial degree of confidence regarding his critical prospects here, and rightly so - each of these increasingly beloved British stars were all too clearly thrilled by the opportunity to delve into what arguably remains one of the most deliciously complex - particularly from a philosophical and sociological perspective - literary works of the Victorian era (if not of the entire English canon), leading them to render Victor, the Creature and Elizabeth in a subversive and therefore wholly refreshing light in spite of the niggling concerns that this reviewer initially had regarding the (over-)familiarity of these oft-adapted characters.

Naturally, though, countless other contributory elements work in tandem in order to ensure an optimal theatrical experience plays out before the audience. One might argue that the downright masterful scripting, haunting score, assured adaptive decisions (that Boyle refuses to depict either the Creature's creation or demise says everything with regards to his quest to de-construct the purely apathetic beast presented in Whale's iconic-to-the-point-of-seeming-clichéd 1931 big-screen rendition, not least through the near-unyielding focus he places on this tragic protagonist by depicting almost all of the key beats of Shelly's narrative word-for-word from his perspective), intelligent use of the stage - which transforms over the course of mere seconds from a blatantly industrialised society (represented via a staggeringly rendered steam train the likes of which the vast majority of viewers could never possibly have begun to envision) to the altogether more rural slopes of a snow-capped mountain - and stunning editorial work of those who filmed the production so as to allow us cinema-goers to witness it in all its majesty are all but expected of Boyle, yet under no circumstances should their predictable nature detract from the immeasurable credit each and every member of the production team deserved and received in full thanks to the purportedly regular standing ovations offered back in 2011. Indeed, that ODEON and a variety of other UK cinema chains have seen fit to arrange these Encore performances a full three years after the play concluded its run at the National Theatre in London is truly telling of the critical and mainstream acclaim with which it was met from the time of its première until the very last instance when Cumberbatch and Miller bowed before their inevitably ecstatic onlookers.

This should, with any luck, mark the first in a number of critical retrospectives on acclaimed and divisive stage shows alike here at On-Screen, but rather than looking to the future in a futile attempt to predict what might lie on the horizon for both the blog and the West End overall, we'll conclude by wholeheartedly confirming the grand extent to which Boyle and his astoundingly diligent company have succeeded in taking a literary text that too many assume has been so comprehensively analysed that there remains little to say and transforming it into a far more prudent and intellectually stimulating viewing experience than even the most hardened Shelly devotees (or indeed devotees of either James Whale's somewhat emotionally soulless - as Boyle rightly went some way to assert during the introductory Creating Frankenstein short film which preceded the production's 'live' broadcast - cinematic adaptation or Kenneth Branagh's dramatically charged yet critically loathed 1994 rendition) could have anticipated. Oh, and make no mistake, given that we had the pleasure of witnessing National Theatre Live: Frankenstein (Encore) on the big-screen, we've thus endeavoured to evaluate its merit not only against the accomplished dramas of our age but also - to a greater extent - the films which have stayed with us throughout this year; trust us when we say that this one has every right to find itself amongst the upper echelons of our Top 10 Best Films of 2014 shortlist come the New Year.

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