These are notes I took during the Frankenstein Q&A on Wednesday 20 April 2011. They’re not verbatim notes and I didn’t record every question or comment. I’m happy to be corrected on anything I have mis-remembered or mis-noted!
This was initially typed in some haste to stop CERTAIN people whinging (directs long hard stare at atlinmerrick). I’ve made some edits since then.
On stage: Danny Boyle, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch together with an interviewer from the BBC whose name I didn’t catch.
Danny and Nick Dear started planning to do this play back in 1994. They dropped the idea when Kenneth Brannagh’s movie version came out and nobody liked it.
The interview was interspersed with clips from the NTLive versions. During the birth scene Benedict and Jonny looked totally confused because someone had thought it was clever to merge the two versions, so for instance Ben’s Creature lunged out of the cocoon initially but then Jonny’s Creature actually fell out onto the floor. Obviously nobody had bothered to warn them about this in advance.
Jonny said that the two of them worked with a movement coach before the rest of the cast joined them. Initially they found it rather embarrassing: two grown men who had barely met, being told to pretend to be oil, or glass. They also visited a couple of schools for autistic children.
Why concentrate on the Creature rather than on Victor?
Danny said that all the movies turned the creature into a monster and they wanted to redress the balance and return to the book where he is far more intelligent. He agreed that the role of Victor is not a great part in this play: he makes a fleeting appearance at the beginning, disappears off for 40 minutes and then spends the rest of the time playing catch-up.
Benedict was very embarrassed watching himself in the “Paradise” scene with the Creature and DeLacey. He said he found it very awkward to see himself on screen.
It takes two and a half hours to get the Creature’s make-up on.
Jonny said that friends of his who had seen the play told him that they feel for the Creature, regardless of the fact that he murders at least five people.
Jonny found it very difficult to watch the clip from the first confrontation scene between the Creature and Victor. He wasn’t happy that it had been filmed. He made the interesting point that Danny wouldn’t have directed it like that, and that the play doesn’t work the same on film. He’s very aware of how much positive and fantastic reaction they’ve had to the NTLive version from all around the world, but the play is meant to be seen from in the room, not on a screen.
Which of the two is your favourite character to play?
Benedict said that he enjoys playing both but that it’s “pretty bloody obvious” which is the best. He added, however, that he loves playing Victor against Jonny’s Creature. He sometimes finds himself thinking, “I hope I’m not mouthing his lines!”
Rather adorably, Jonny and Ben were sharing a bottle of water [edit: apparently it may have been a bottle of beer] on the stage, both drinking straight from it. Considering how easily Benedict goes down with lurgies, I think Jonny was being rather brave – or stupid!
Benedict said that one of the issues of the two of them reversing roles is that, on one occasion, he was sitting in the cocoon listening to the audience talking as they came in and heard someone look at their programme and the casting for that day and say, “Oh, no, is it him?”!
Jonny said that he was absolutely terrified at the idea of performing naked. Danny reassured him that the audience would think, “What guts,” about both of them. Andreea Padurariu, who plays the female Creature, was the first one to go naked in rehearsals, which gave Jonny and Benedict more reason to get on with it.
How have the performances evolved over time? What does Danny think about the evolution of the roles?
Danny said that one thing you can guarantee is if you come back a few weeks after seeing any performance, it’ll be funnier, because actors will always cast around for more laughs. He saw it for the first time tonight after a couple of weeks’ gap and thought it was amazing. He expected to have lots of notes at the end of the play but only has a few.
Jonny related the classic acting joke:
Question: How many actors does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: Forty-one: one to change the light bulb and forty to stand there, [shake their finger disparagingly] and say, “I wouldn’t have changed it like that.”
He and Ben have found that watching each other helps their own performance: some of the time they looked at what the other one was doing and thought, “I wouldn’t do it like that,” but on other occasions they thought, “I would do it like that; that’s amazing,” and they gave each other permission to share. He continued that this had been an incredible opportunity because their performances evolved not only because of the reaction of the audience but through watching each other. “I’ll forever be incredibly thankful for that opportunity ... (he points to Ben) ... ’cause he’s really good.”
(Cue an embarrassed cuddle from Ben)
How different is it directing and acting on stage and in film?
Danny said he kept walking towards the actors in rehearsals and had to keep being dragged back by the stage managers. Otherwise it’s a fairly similar experience: good actors are natural storytellers.
Jonny said that in theatre you get several weeks to explore and assimilate your and others’ roles, then you tell the whole story every night rather than doing little bits here and there like you do in film. By doing the whole story in the course of a few hours, you can tell much better whether it’s working or not. There are some days when he’s really tired but he hopes he’s so well rehearsed that with any luck it’s only him who knows that he’s not doing his best performance.
How did Danny choose the actors, and how did he direct them?
Danny wanted to do the role-swap right from the start, and wondered who would be willing to do this. He knew Jonny from working with him before but had never worked with Ben, and liked the idea of developing two different relationships.
Benedict only wanted to do the part when he learned about the role-swap. He says that you own the whole play doing both parts. Every night you’re changing – you leave one role and move on the next day, so you can’t make right what you weren’t happy with the previous night, and that’s a real challenge.
He added that during rehearsals they once played both roles one Saturday, then he decided that it was a great plan to wind down by going to see The Black Swan at the cinema. To great laughter, he pulled a rueful face and said that that was not to be recommended if you’re sharing a role with someone else!
Was the play written with the Olivier Theatre in mind?
Danny always wanted to do it at the Olivier. They were actually offered the Lyttelton Theatre by the National who thought it would be the better theatre for them, but he insisted on the Olivier.
Will the play be taken elsewhere?
Jonny said that other companies may apply to do the play in the future, but it’ll never be as good in another theatre.
Benedict said that only the Olivier could really house it; it would never work as well elsewhere. One time during rehearsals he was standing high above the side of the stage and looked down as the stage revolved; he was watching the sets sinking and rising and started crying at the sight.
Jonny pointed out that the bell is really old; it was made when Shakespeare was still alive. “The Elizabethans heard that sound,” adds Ben.
A teacher from one of the schools for autistic children which had been visited by the cast was in the theatre and asked where else they went to prepare for their roles.
Danny said that they went to an autopsy. It was Ben’s idea that they needed to understand how to be professional and to learn about that kind of environment, as a background to Victor’s character. They learned what the skin looks like, what organs look like when exposed, what they weigh. It was fascinating, and Benedict added that there was actually personality in the person lying on the table.
At the end of the session, everyone in the audience was asked to again put on the Frankenstein Creature masks which they had all been given on entering the theatre. As they did so, Ben peered out into the audience and asked, “Where are the Victor masks?!”
Author’s note: This was edited once I’d had a chance to see some of the videos which have been uploaded to YouTube. cumberbatchfans is one good place to find links to some of these videos.
I’ve been very touched by the comments of people who have thanked me for doing these notes. To be honest I didn’t initially intend to and you can thank verityburns for asking me to, and for weathering the hail of abuse I sent her in return, asking whether – if she was going – she would rather look at the pretty men on the stage or sit scribbling in a notebook! Despite the fact that I missed some of the jokes and gestures (and I’m glad I’ve now had a chance to see some videos!) I’m glad that people have found my notes interesting and useful.