Frankenstein @ National Theatre

Posted: March 19, 2011 in Play, Review
Tags: , , , , , , ,


Jonny Lee Miller as The Creature

Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein

Walking into the Olivier Theatre we were greeted by a sonorous bell clanging harshly above us – on stage, a circular womb moved slowly around the revolve, something unseen shifting slowly inside. Above us, hundreds of light bulbs gently pulsed, growing brighter and dimmer in a gentle rhythm. This is the world Danny Boyle has created, and it’s immediately compelling.

Jonny Lee Millers performance as the Creature is a revelation. His painful entry into the world is nothing short of astonishing as he bursts, completely naked, from his vertical ‘womb’. The following 15 minutes is simply the Creature learning how to use his newfound body. His spastic convulsions, leading slowly to his first, joyous, stuttering steps is incredible to watch. The childlike laugh as he walks proudly around the stage for the first time was replicated by many audience members. We were with him by that point – we saw his innocence, and his childish glee at the beauty of the world around him, and almost dreaded what was to come.

Both actors give an outstanding performance. Having only seen it in this configuration, I cannot comment on Cumberbatch as the Creature, but Miller seemed to fill the role with equal menace and naïvety, while Cumberbatch as Frankenstein was a cold and calculating creation – completely devoid of sentiment or love. Cumberbatch and Miller seem to complement each other perfectly – both creating one warped whole as the servant and the master

I was in the rare position for this show, coming to the show with next to no knowledge of the plot. It was a blind spot I can’t explain – all I knew of Frankenstein was the very basics. Mad doctor creates a monster from spare body parts. I had no idea the story would pack such a punch. Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story has come under scrutiny in other reviews, with many seeing it as too schmalzy – I agree to a point  (the “what is love?” question did make me wince), but overall I found this script intelligent, witty and humane. My only criticism is that the eponymous Frankenstein wasn’t in it nearly enough. The decision to pursue perfection in the Bride is fascinating, and made me miss the initial creation of the Creature; more focus on Frankenstein’s god complex wouldn’t have been out of place.

As it is, the script suggested that the creature could have represented all that was good in the Doctor, but circumstance warped him into a cruel misrepresentation. Boyle and Dear appear to constantly pose a question to the audience – who is the real monster? The disfigured, frightening creature, or Doctor Frankenstein, who forgoes love and life in favour of creating perfection, or perhaps it is the society that shuns the Creature. The issue is not really resolved – though by the end it doesn’t matter. Boyle created a ‘shiver down the spine’ moment to close on, as the monster, now fully in control of his patched-together body, marches proudly into the snowy wasteland, while Frankenstein, physically and mentally exhausted, crawls slowly behind, chasing him to the bitter end. It is a wonderful change of fortunes, and one that stays with you long after leaving the theatre.

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