Frankenstein

  • Theatre
Critics' choice
© Catherine Ashmore
Jonny Lee Miller - The Creature, Benedict Cumberbatch- Victor Frankenstein

Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’ is already a monster hit for the National Theatre. Does it live up to its billing? The answer is an almighty ‘yes’.

This ‘Frankenstein’ belongs to the monster – or ‘the Creature’, as it’s re-christened in Nick Dear’s script – which is, by the way, highly sensitive to the currents of revolution, reason, and Romantic death-driven art that first animated Shelley’s Gothic vision. Boyle’s production  begins with the Creature’s unnatural birth from what could be described as a Da Vinci pod: a man-sized vellum-coloured circle, which ejects a scarred and writhing life-form, like a parody of Leonardo’s ideal diagram.

This birth scene is an extraordinary challenge for an actor: 15 minutes of fully naked jerks and rictus-mouthed pangs, under the harsh pulses of light that thrum through the brilliant rack of bulbs and alembics that roof the auditorium. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who alternate the roles of Frankenstein and his creation, deserve respect (if you’re in the front row, prepare for an eyeful), but the more muscular Miller is a revelation as the Creature. He brings a powerful brutish innocence to this man-made baby, rejected at birth, and makes his many acts of destruction, such as torching the kind old blind buffer who teaches him to read using ‘Paradise Lost’, seem elemental and therefore less irredeemable.

Cumberbatch is camper, funnier and nastier in the monster’s role. But you feel more for Miller’s Caliban-like Creature. And Cumberbatch – as fans of the Beeb’s ‘Sherlock’ will attest – has a sadistic flair when it comes to playing a semi-autistic genius with a chip of ice at his heart. The dynamic of the duo works best with Miller providing the muscle and the pathos, Cumberbatch the flamboyant, cerebral chill.

The strength and weakness of Dear’s adaptation is how faithful it is to Shelley’s novel. ‘Frankenstein’ might have been more pertinent updated to our own Cyborg era – Underworld’s music, which sounds like a dance of heavy machinery in the sinister bits and synthesised optimism when the Creature gambols on the grass on his first day, underscores the possibility.

The production might have been more claustrophobic and scary if Dear had imposed some unities of place and time – instead, months are telescoped into minutes as we follow Shelley’s monster  across Europe. But the payoff is an unforgettable showdown in the arctic ice, where the murderous, rejected Creature cuts a Beckettian caper at the end of the world and teaches its cold Creator something about the essence of love.

Boyle – who cut his creative teeth in the theatre – does a film-tastic job of whisking us from location to location on the Olivier’s revolving stage. Allegory meets nightmare, in the spectacular steampunk train that comes whistling and sparking towards the audience; the wedding night murder in Frankenstein’s whiter-than-white family house, with its Enlightened proportions; and in the figure of the Creature’s bride, a goddess sutured together from corpses, whose docile grace and downcast eyes are modelled on Botticelli’s 'Birth of Venus'. In true Gothic spirit, it shows how the God-like and monstrous capacities of man are conjoined – and that either can be master of the other.

It’s not all superlative. The line between allegorical simplicity and clunkingly clichéd lines is always narrow and often crossed. The bit parts are broadly written and overplayed (with the honourable exception of Karl Johnson as the Creature’s teacher). Naomie Harris endeavours to be luminous as Frankenstein’s underwritten fiancée. George Harris fails to make any emotional sense as Frankenstein’s father. But these elements are not, fundamentally, what so many people have paid to see.

Average User Rating

2.5 / 5

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LiveReviews|6
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Ron

I was so excited about seeing this production and I have to say I hated it . It was really not very good and was everything that people who dont go to the theatre , think about live theatre . I was incredibly bored . the parts played by george harris and naomie harris , were ridiculous, that relationship would not have happened in the early 19th century and the creature raping elizabeth was the most laughable thing I can imagine . Mary Shelley must be turning in her grave.

Dr. J,A. Kohiyar

I saw only one version, about a year ago, and I am now 76, so my memory is dimming, but I do recall having been quite impressed when I saw it. I recall the rejection of the creature by his disappointed Creator. Further rejections by Society in general ( but then he was so frighteningly full of scars stitched together, one could to some extent understand the Society's anxieties). The key scene in my memory is the big Bedroom Scene, where the bed is the main prop, with a beautiful young woman lying on it, hungry and begging him for both love and sex, but the Creature has no time or feeling for her. Had he been insensitised by then, or was he gay (indeed, towards the end there is a very passionate kiss between the two men)? The acting by both men was excellent, but many of the minor characters were worse than amateurs. The father who discovers his child has been murdered, shows no grief, no loss, no rage...no emotion at all.

funkoxen

nah. godawful. too much money not enough thought. boyles direction is just one send it before theatrical setpiece after another even though some are spectacular. the script is feeble. i mean it feeble. it shoots for spartacus/there will be blood by not having the charecter speak for fifteen minutes but then descends into a series of scenes that should be dramatic, descending into dull explanations of whats going on peppered with inapproriate ingratiating jokes, it manages to make a rape and murder dull and the ending was just another explanation of themes in case you havent got it yet. 1 engaging scene with the female monster aside not a single moment of drama, horror or excitment, the leads roar and fling themselves about trying to imbue the limp dialouge with power but their own limitations as physical actors glare through, its a little embaresing to watch and every other actor just says the lines, naomi harris was dreadful, the kid wanted shooting and what was up with big daddy frankenstein i do not know. Frankenstein is a gift of a project. a horror story with depth and complication and oedipal depths that were reworked and lessened here. the wealth of horror film history alone should have led to a creepier darker more intense story not this limp semi comic offering. it looks like danny boyle turned up about three times in the rehearsal process, said, lights there train there birds there and then left the cast to it. what i could do with that money!

Andrzej

To be fair, Dan, I'm rather glad none of the actors attempted to put on German/Swiss accents! I thought it was broadly excellent (on a Miller=creature/Cumberbatch=Victor night) though I'd kind of been prepped for the relative weakness of the supporting parts, so maybe it didn't bother me too much... they only really got on my nerves when they tried to be funny (the farmer guy's speech about helpful fairies... the Scottish fishermen). But the lead actors and the sheer spectacle of the thing countered my problems pretty easily, plus Dear's script was genuinely pretty strong when writing for Victor/the Creature, I thought,

dan

one of the worst plays I have ever seen. Designed beautifully but what a load of style over substance. Clunky dialogue, terrible acting by the small parts particularly the father of Frankenstein. Why cast an actor witha west indian accent to play the part?