Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Frankenstein Looms Large in the West End

London’s West End is enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity of late. I’m not talking about box office sales figures here, although certainly there has been an increase in takings in recent years, despite the economic slump. No, what I’m referring to is the number of big-name Hollywood actors and directors who have been beating a path to the stage doors of the capital’s renowned theatre district. Once the stomping ground of bohemian and impoverished thespians, the West End has now become the destination of choice for screen actors as diverse as Jeff Goldblum and David Hyde Pierce – and in their rush to thread the hallowed boards, many agree to work for a fraction of their normal salaries.

When asked about the reasoning behind their decision to forsake the bright, sunny climes of LA, in favour of a gruelling three month run in front of unforgiving London audiences in equally unforgiving weather, many of these actors respond with the usual platitudes – a desire to return to their ‘acting roots’, a yearning to get in touch with real audiences, a longing for the credibility reserved only for stage actors …. All of these explanations may be to a greater or lesser extent true, but one can’t help but feel that the real reason for this mass exodus to London lies squarely with one man – Kevin Spacey.

Back in 2003, when Spacey, a hugely successful Oscar-winning actor, all but abandoned his glittering Hollywood career to take up the position of Artistic Director at the Old Vic,
his express intention was to re-invigorate the British theatre industry by coaxing British and American acting talent back to the stage. And sure enough, thanks to a bulging contact list, a massive media blitz, and a liberal sprinkling of Spacey star-dust, the big names soon came flocking to our shores. A mere trickle at first, quickly grew to a tsunami: before long, London stages were groaning under the weight of movie stars … because, as we all know, if there’s one thing Hollywood can’t resist, it’s a craze.

And so, a new golden age of theatre was born – and 2011 is proving to be its best year yet…

Currently, dotted around the West End, celebrities such as Keira Knightley, Elizabeth Moss, Matthew Fox and Sienna Miller are busy trying to prove their theatre-acting chops. However, the most exciting of all the current batch of big name productions has to be Frankenstein, the National Theatre’s blockbuster dramatisation of Mary Shelley’s classic gothic novel.

Directed by none other than Danny Boyle (who brought us Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Trainspotting), it also stars Jonny Lee Miller (another Trainspotting alumnus and ex-husband of Angelina Jolie) and Benedict Cumberbatch (fresh from his success playing Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s eponymous drama). With such a cast of characters on board, this show could not fail to hit the mark. In fact, even before the show was previewed, whispers abounded that this would be a show not to be missed - a prediction that proved to be true.

Thanks mainly to Boyle’s unique re-imagining of a now-familiar tale, and the astonishingly visceral acting of his leading men(Cumberbatch and Miller alternate between the roles of Victor and Creature), the show has proved to be an astounding success.
Having recently opened to rave reviews, with critics falling over themselves to heap praise the production, the run is completely sold out. Demand is such that the National Theatre has agreed to the unprecedented move of beaming two performances of the show live to cinemas around the world. (Whether this massive demand is due to the inspired direction and stellar acting, or to a legion of women desirous to see the leading men naked in their role as Creature, I cannot say.)

The outstanding success the production has, in accordance with Spacey’s vision, proved to be a boon for British theatre.
Frankenstein has attracted unparalleled media coverage, drawing the world’s attention to the London stage and re-igniting interest in the theatre. This will ultimately benefit everyone – actors, theatre-goers, theatre owners alike. Everyone wins. If this is the result of the unlikely blending of new Hollywood with the old British theatre tradition, long may it continue.

All hail the genius that is Kevin Spacey.

For further information on cinema screenings of Frankenstein, see the National Theatre's website:

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