Frankenstein at the National Theatre

This post is dedicated to Sandra Cheesman (who belongs on the stage at the National Theatre).

London's South Bank on a cloudy day

Believe it or not, I wasn’t always a big theatre goer and certainly didn’t seem to live on the South Bank the way I do now. The big change happened in 2011.

My friend, Sandra, told me that Benedict Cumberbatch was in a play at the National Theatre and that I should go to see it. She knew that he was my number one fantasy totty at the time. It sounded like effort to me though.

Weeks passed and I thought no more of it. The Easter holidays came around and I had come into a tiny bit of money. What a choice time this was for Sandra to mention that Benedict had received rave reviews for his performance in Frankenstein at the National. All the tickets had sold out but there were day tickets for those early birds prepared to queue in the morning. Fuck it, I thought. I’ll go up there. If I get a ticket: great. If I don’t then I’ll have a jolly in London for the day.

If you’ve never been to the National Theatre, you could be forgiven for imagining that it is some beautiful grand old building like the Royal Albert Hall. It isn’t. It’s a concrete monstrosity that looks across between a 1970s shopping mall and something out of the original series of Star Trek. If you think the layers of beige concrete on the outside are confusing then don’t even think about going inside. Even now, after many visits to the place, I still get lost. The seemingly random collections of mezzanine floors and stair cases that seem to lead nowhere, remind me of that end scene in The Labyrinth where the girl can see the baby but can’t get to it. I keep expecting to look up and see David Bowie, in those scarily tight trousers, gazing down at me.

The outside of the National Theatre

The box office opens at 9.30am so I naively arrived at 8am. My heart sank as I followed the queue around the side of the building. I’ll never get a ticket, I thought. Nevertheless, I joined this huge queue and took out a book to read.

After three quarters of an hour, the chill had crept into my bones. The man behind me in the queue was short, middle aged and had the look of a university professor. He looked quite promising. The woman in front was carrying a bicycle helmet, looked 30something and was wearing a purple silk scarf. She also looked promising, so I started with her.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Would you hold my place in the queue if I go and get a coffee? I’ll get one for you too if you like.”
“That’s an excellent idea,” she said, in a frightfully posh accent. “Actually, I’ll come with you.”

We turned to the man behind who had to have heard the conversation. He shrugged, “I’ll hold your place for you,” he said, in a soft soothing voice that made me think he might be a doctor rather than a professor. “I’ve brought a flask though so don’t need a coffee, thank you.”

The bicycle lady and I went for coffee and became single-serving friends.

Back in the queue, we were starting to get nervous.
“What if we get right to the front and they say ‘sorry, sold out’?” I said.
“That would be awful,” Bicycle lady said.
“It must happen to someone,” a young blond girl, who had joined in the conversation, said.
“Don’t they sell standing tickets though?” her friend, who was powerfully ginger, asked.
“I think so,” I said. “But they must run out of those eventually.”

The doors opened and we all streamed into the foyer. Snaking around the inside of the theatre, the queue looked even longer. My queue buddies must have thought the same because we all went quiet for a while.

At 10.15am, the box office was in sight. We edged closer. Blond girl and ginger girl went up to the counter. Joyfully, they turned back to us and gave a thumbs up. I was happy for them but worried that the person who would be turned away would be me alone. Bicycle lady went up. She seemed to be up there a while. Turning around, she smiled and said she’d got a ticket for the matinee.

“See you there,” she said.
I really hope you’re right, I thought.
The young chap at the desk smiled for me to come over. “One, please,” I croaked past the lump in my throat.
“There are no cheap tickets left but I do you a seat in the balcony at £35, OK?” he said.
“Fine,” I said, and couldn’t keep the big silly grin off my face.

Taken from the terrace of the National Theatre

Sitting in my balcony seat with a pint in my hand, I thought the set looked awesome. The stage was completely bare except for a large circular pod which rotated very slowly on a turntable that took up most of the stage. Hanging from the ceiling was a huge river of light bulbs of all shapes and sizes glowing softly. A large bell hung above a walk way leading to the back of the auditorium. When it rang, it was so loud it made me jump.

The lights in the auditorium went dark. A ripple of light ran across the river of bulbs. The turn table stopped rotating. A figure inside the pod, which looked like it was made of pieces of skin sown together, began to move. The bulbs crackled with electricity as if a lightning bolt had shot through them. The figure fell against the side of the pod causing it to bulge out obscenely. Another lightning bolt lit up the bulb river and Jonny Lee Miller fell out of the pod, bald headed and bollock naked.

For a moment, his nakedness eclipsed his monster make-up which made him look more pitiful than frightening. This poor battered creature rolled, crawled and dragged itself around the stage teaching itself to walk. The audience shared in his triumph as he mastered the art, even with everything flopping about in full view, until Victor Frankenstein, Benedict Cumberbatch, turns up and rejects his creation, turning him out.

As the two protagonists go their separate ways, we see the monster being shown kindness and receiving an education while Victor shows us what a peculiar cold fish he really is. When the monster has learned to read, he learns of his origins from Victor’s diary, which he accidentally took with him when he was driven away, and this leads him to seek out Victor. One of my favourite scenes is the confrontation between these two in the icy wasteland of the Alps.

The play ends with the pair effectively swapping positions. Victor has been reduced to a pathetic creature that can barely walk whereas the monster is now in full command of his faculties and determined to lead them both to their doom.

As the two lead actors alternated playing the roles of Victor and the monster, naturally, I had to see it the other way round. Therefore, two days later I got up at 5.30am to arrive at the theatre at 7am to join the queue to see Benedict play the monster and Jonny play Victor.

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