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Fringe Online 2020

Low Down

Directed by Danny Boyle, Set Design’s by Mark Tidesley with Lighting by Bruno Poet and Costume Designer Suttirat Anne Larlab, Music and Sound Score Underworld, Director of Movement Toby Sedgwick, Fight director Kate Waters, Music Associate Alex Baranowski, Sound design Underworld and Ed Clarke.

For NT Live: Screen Director Tim Van Someren ensures an atmospheric swirl and whirligig from the original’s maintained, that includes low and relatively high shots, close-ups and straightforward frontals – as much as you can considering the Olivier. Assistant Screen Director Laura Vallis, Technical Producer’s Christopher C Bretnall, Lighting Directors Bernie Davis, Mike Le Ferve, Sound Supervisor Conrad Fletcher. Till May 8th.


In this fifth instalment of NT LiveAtHome we’re back in 2011 for one of the NT’s most epic sweeps.

A being born from a luminous egg, orphaned inarticulate vulnerable never quite mastering gait but with a skew-sided jerk into life, rather like the electricity that gave him birth, the Creature, abandoned by his creator, slouches sideways towards Geneva to be reborn.

Overhanging him is a firmament of candles flashing into galvanic light. Sympathetically you feel. There’s no surprise when finally coming across a sympathetic blind man who teaches him Milton the Creature seizes on the epic reach of beauty, perhaps love. But his creator’s flawed more than Milton’s God.

Nick Dear’s two-hour version of Mary Shelley’s 1816 classic skews itself through the creature’s eyes. We miss naturally the scaling-up of Victor Frankenstein’s ambition, his self-monstering arrogance, chilly pride, stupendous hubris. After a remarkable non-verbal apprenticeship with the earth in the Olivier’s revolve involving near run-over with an early steam monster (progress?), frozen rabbit poachers (John Killoran, Steven Elliott) remembering the warmth of Augsburg adultery, Dear’s script does frantic catch-up halfway through in the first great confrontation between the protagonists. It’s the more chilling because we get it verbally with both monsters.

Danny Boyle’s production famously alternates Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. There’s a sense Cumberbatch edges Frankenstein’s ice-hard arrogance, that Miller captures the creature’s wounded menace and Cumberbatch his soaring eloquence and shattered pillar of grandeur. This version indeed pitches Cumberbatch as creature and Miller’s Frankenstein.

It’s daring of Boyle to spend nearly a quarter of the production pre-speech as it were, as if Cumberbatch still goes through stages of infancy as a suddenly-created thing; and indeed a tabula rasa of apparently no memory till he learns to read the notes he tore from Frankenstein’s notebook in some previous existence. His first significant contact is with De Lacey, Karl Johnson’s portrayal of a kindly academic in cannon-blinded exile. For some curious reason the pair are left conveniently to get on with a year’s worth of education, snow and a wondering spill of birdsong and green gauze light alternating.

His seizure of Milton as he later proves to Frankenstein himself is profound ‘I sweep to my revenge’ he declares thrillingly Satan-like or indeed Jacobean. Everything about Cumberbatch from his ticking twitch sideways into being, his soaring serrated vocalising and his ‘tall as a tree’ howling stature are phenomenal.

Johnson’s gentle non-judgmentalism even when he feels Cumberbatch’s scalpel-knobbed head isn’t a phrenologist’s whim, but touches inherent wounds. ‘You have been in the wars’ he states; you feel redemption glimmer. Alas De Lacey’s hard-working son Felix (Daniel Millar) and warm but frightened Agatha (Lizzie Winkler) see only horror and the Creature takes revenge.

As he swiftly does with locating Frankenstein family members (William Nye’s William, far younger brother of Victor) and eventually Naomi Harris’ Elizabeth. George Harris’ Frankenstein senior has alas little to do than express bewilderment and finally a kind of compassionate outrage at his son’s frenetic switchbacks. Ella Smith in a few parts mainly maid Clarice brings much-needed shafts of humour.

Miller’s sullen Frankenstein has a sunken hubris and hunkers down as much as Cumberbatch hunkers up as a stricken hulk. Miller’s compact resentment scores blister after blister of savagery, delivered through a surgically sure sense of slave-ownership. He’s a master whose superiority and will is asserted absolute over the Monster’s towering fate or Elizabeth’s ‘lack of education’, a sop to what he feels is her inferior intelligence though to be fair, he feels everyone’s equal to him in inferiority.

It’s commonplace to ask who the monster is, siding with the creature, but here Dear locates it in really chilling cultural specifics, the flipside of late enlightenment principles, not far from the way they fuelled the French Revolution.

Dear’s dramatization of the core debate exposes the way Frankenstein’s entertainment of creating a perfect female (Andreea Padurariu) suddenly gives way to a judgment of ‘no’ un-creating or killing her in a bad-faith ‘lie’ which Cumberbatch shrinks into himself as the master’s last lesson, visited terribly again on the way he first almost woos Elizabeth – Harris manages horror melting into nervy warmth beautifully here – into pitying him and allying herself to his cause though his groping her breast (‘We’ll have none of that’ from Elizabeth surreally coy) to his declaration of that last lesson, to ‘lie’ as he rapes and strangles Elizabeth, seen in this production vertically. The horror is greater because of winning trust.

You might suggest he becomes as monstrously human as Frankenstein in that moment, fulfilling either his Creature’s desires that can’t be channelled through tenderness or as his physical obverse. Throughout Dear suggests the Creator’s more in tune with love and thus more capable of both happiness and even more ferocious evil when thwarted.

There’s no doubt another star is the set design by Mark Tidesley using the drum revolve’s full resources; with the Olivier in full tilt swept across in icy wastes or in a grand Enlightenemnt house at tilt, all cream or a small shack, , the natural world with a small burner all lit in an extraordinary refractive sweep of colours, sulphurous and star-clean, by Bruno Poet. Costume Design by Suttirat Anne Larlab extends to how the protagonists hang out of their clothes. Music and Sound Score Underworld who with Ed Clarke provide Sound design too. There should be special mention for Movement Director Toby Sedgwick and Fight director Kate Waters. They bring around the special circling lurch of this astonishing spectacle.

There’s fine ensemble work from the rest of the cast Martin Chamberlain, Daniel Ings, Mark Armstrong’s the querulous young fisherman Rab and John Stahl’s more pragmatic craggy Ewan (in a black the comedy of assessing the attractiveness of the dead girl against her live sister), Josie Daxter, William Nye.

It’s almost as spectacular a production as Ibsen’s Emperor and Galilean also from 2011, which remains the most stupefying epic production I can remember in the Olivier over 20 years. The acting here scales cliff-edges of unreason. But here one remembers the scale of betrayal and loss of redemption in ‘come’ the thing of darkness acknowledged, the sheer howl of pain as two figures make off pole-bent, locked together in a snow-blinding eternity.