The 127 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire director has unveiled his latest project, a stage version of Frankenstein - does it live up to his reputation?
Danny Boyle's Frankenstein: ambitious and entertaining
It starts with a shimmer of light running through a ceiling studded with gold-tinged lamps and bulbs of all different colours and sizes, and a horrifically made-up actor pushing his way through a stretched membrane that's part-circus hoop, part-amniotic sac. For the next 15 minutes or so, the stage is empty and silent except for the monster twitching, shuddering and learning how to move.
Although there's no zippy dialogue or plot to draw you in, it's a mesmerising physical performance that quickly gets to the heart of what the creature is: not quite an animal, not quite a newborn, not quite a person. The stage is set for him to wreak havoc.
Frankenstein, the stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel that's just begun at the National Theatre in London, was always going to be one of the year's biggest stage events. The music is by Underworld, the stars - Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his monster each night, as well as Naomie Harris as Elizabeth Lavenza - are well-known from film and TV, and the director is none other than Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours.
There's no denying that the result is spectacular, and there's plenty to like about the play. The acting, for one: while Miller plays the monster as hulking and brutish, Cumberbatch has a lighter touch, mixing dignity, self-hatred, intelligence and naïveté with subtlety, and successfully taking on the movements and voice of a creature who has been alive only a few years by the play's end.
The set also offers moments of magic: rolled-out turf, birds in flight and real rain underscoring the monster's first, idyllic few days; firecrackers and real fire when things go downhill; those shimmering lights, which are used to represent the spark of life.
From a director who has been working more recently in film than theatre, though, there are aspects of the production that are almost comically filmic, as though it was planned as a film and only afterwards mounted on stage. The whole thing clocks in at a feature-length two hours, without an interval, and elaborate stage set-ups are used for scenes lasting only a few seconds. Early on, a moving steam train rolls on set filled with partying extras, and just as quickly disappears, just in case we didn't clock that this was a play about progress and technology, with a large budget.
Later, there are transparent houses that appear in fields, sets representing the Alps, the Arctic and Lake Geneva, and scenes set in drawing rooms, bedrooms, on board a ship and in a lab. Aristotle thought that plays should have unity of action, place and time; Frankenstein's writer Nick Dear clearly disagrees.
The script is the production's weak point. A happy couple whom the monster starts out secretly helping and ends up burning to death might be written in an intentionally two-dimensional way, but it's hard to find an excuse for lines such as: "We stick together through thick and thin and never stop loving each other... and magical things happen!" Much of the dialogue sounds too much like exposition or explanation of themes and not enough like words anyone would actually use.
"What have I brought into the world?" Dr Frankenstein's father cries, apparently in an attempt to suggest that his son's anxiety over the monster he has created is something all parents can relate to. "All I wanted was your love," the monster wails in the play's dying moments, sounding like he's reciting lyrics from a pop song. A savvier writer would let his audience realise points such as this more gradually.
Overall, does this count as a success for Boyle? He's already set the bar pretty high. Best known for his runaway film successes, he's a versatile director who has turned his hand to zombie movies (28 Days Later), travel adventures (The Beach), romcoms (A Life Less Ordinary) and sci-fi thrillers (Sunshine). His latest film, 127 Hours, is a biopic of the mountaineer Aron Ralston, who amputated his own arm with a penknife after being trapped under a boulder for five days. It was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, although didn't come away with any awards.
If there is a common thread that runs through all of Boyle's work, it's his ability to pair serious subject matter with adrenalin-fuelled thrills, and a sense of energy and optimism, even when the topic at hand is drug addiction or dying climbers.
Frankenstein's no exception to this. Amid all the doom-laden gothic horror - the idea that science will destroy us, that cruelty begets more cruelty, and that a life without love is a waking nightmare - the sheer pleasure of the sets, the music and the twisting plot uplifts rather than depresses.
Cinema isn't the only territory that Boyle has ventured into. He started out working for Max Stafford-Clark and David Hare's Joint Stock Theatre Company before moving on to the Royal Court and Royal Shakespeare Company in the 1980s. He did some TV directing too, including episodes of Inspector Morse, before moving on to films with his first feature, Shallow Grave. And next year, he'll be putting on a big live show of a very different sort when he takes up his role as the creative director of the London 2012 Olympics Games.
So if Frankenstein didn't go well, it would hardly be the end of a glittering career. As it is, the show's entire run sold out well before previews began, it's being beamed into cinemas around Europe, and overall, the production is a hugely enjoyable couple of hours. What stays with you after the curtain goes down is the dazzling visual spectacle, the rawness of the acting, and the starkness of the final scene, in which Victor is doomed to run from his creation forever. As audiences saw on the release of The Beach and Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle prefers movement, colour and grand sweeps of emotion to finer details or small, pent-up anxieties. Anyone who liked those movies will be won over by Boyle's return to the stage.