Danny Boyle, famed movie director of Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours, flexes his theatre muscles and takes on Mary Shelley’s industrial-age classic. We went to an early show last night. It’s great – crackling with freakish energy and vision. You should go.
This isn’t another ‘re-imagining’ of the story with modern-day trappings, or a cheesy gothic SFX confection – god knows we don’t need another one. It’s a dramatisation of the novel. That means it’s about the same things: men’s pride, loneliness, where good and evil come from, and the perils of unchecked science. Perhaps Frankenstein is most about what it means to be human, or a person – and whether those two are even the same thing.
Boyle’s put his stamp on the story, though. He’s adept at drawing our eye to outsiders – slum dwellers, heroin addicts, backpacking loners – and showing you their humour and humanity. That’s what he does here. Benedict Cumberbatch (rising alabaster star of TV’s Sherlock) and Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting and, uh… yeah anyway) alternate the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his freakish creation every night. So you don’t know who you’re about to see play who – or should that be what?
Sliding naked out of an artificial womb and flapping like an air-drowning fish, under a shaft of galvanic energy from a ceiling carpet of bulbs and filaments, the Creature is the first thing we see. Is it Benedict Cumberbatch or Johnny Lee Miller? Hard to tell at first, but then we saw we were in for a Cumberbatch Creature and a Miller Frankenstein.
Good thing, too. Cumberbatch makes a brilliant Creature (not a Monster in this version, apparently). The horror of his appearance isn’t just in his mangled head but his movements. Cumberbatch’s Creature is a deformed, childlike thing, hands twisted as if suffering from cerebral palsy, walking not like a shambling movie monster but like someone in desperate need of a wheelchair. His newly-learned speech is a little like the way the deaf talk. These references to mundane, modern ailments mean that we’re instantly sympathetic to this unfortunate creation. Poor guy, we think. Won’t somebody cut him a break? He’s terrifying not because of his appearance, but because he exists at all.
For the first time in ages, we get a Creature that Mary herself would have been proud of, and one which makes sense of her vision to a modern audience without losing the story’s soul. You know how it goes. The half-made, barely-sentient Creature stumbles into industrial Europe, where he’s instantly rejected by the uncaring, unimaginative, war-torn world. I was reminded of War Horse – another National Theatre blockbuster in which we watch a marvelous creation brought to life (in that case, by puppetry), and then subjected to the ills and evils of an industrialised time.
Mary Shelley’s Creature reads the Bible and Paradise Lost, and most adaptations (like the ill-starred Kenneth Branagh one) get the Creature’s education at the hands of a conveniently blind old man out of the way as soon as they can. After all, it can feel like a painful plot contrivance that allows the Creature to be literate and allusive in his later speeches. But Boyle does what he’s particularly good at – he doesn’t avoid contradictions or absurdities, he tackles them head on. He wisely allows the Creature’s education to feel like a central part in a coming-of-age drama that goes horribly wrong. Soon, the Creature learns revenge and rage along with reading and writing. When he’s rejected again, he takes his cues from what he’s learnt, and starts to kill.
So where’s Victor Frankenstein in all this? Well, this is a Creature’s-eye view of the world, and aside from an early glimpse, the creator is offstage (just like ours is – oooh, deep!) A bit like in the film Memento, this means we’re at least nominally in the same position as the Creature – we don’t know where he has come from any more than he does, so his endless primary-school curiosity seems only reasonable. Why was he born? Why does everyone hate him? Where is his creator?
But when Victor Frankenstein does show up, the drama is dialled down. This Victor is vainglorious, cold and calculating, an icon of science and industry without the imagination to understand he’s created a thinking being with its own appalling needs. Trouble is, Jonny Lee Miller doesn’t sell it well. He strides around the stage barking in a monotone, occasionally pointing at things. His lack of affection for his fiancée doesn’t seem like haughty disdain but block-headed dullness. (It doesn’t help that Naomie Harris as his betrothed is tediously one-note in her innocent affections – the audience grew bored in scenes where they face off.) Compared to Cumberbatch’s galvanic, magnetic Monster, Miller just seems like a damp squib.
But Frankenstein has some good lines, and it’s easy to imagine Cumberbatch creating a more arresting version of this scientific ice-man who has to face his cosmic responsibilities. And who knows? Maybe Miller’s equally amazing as the Creature – we’d love to find out.
NB: If you can’t get tickets, this production is being broadcast live on 17th March to various cinemas and theatres around the country – I urge you to watch it if you can.
From the NT link:
National Theatre Live
For the first time ever, National Theatre Live will broadcast two separate performances of a production. Throughout the run of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. Audiences in cinemas will have the chance to see both combinations, with two broadcasts a week apart.
17 March: Benedict Cumberbatch (Creature), Jonny Lee Miller (Victor)*
24 March: Jonny Lee Miller (Creature), Benedict Cumberbatch (Victor)*
* and varying dates internationally