Nick Dear, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
RNT Olivier Theatre
The National Theatre has possibly surpassed even its own high standards with Nick Dear's thrilling but compassionate new play based on Mary Shelley's classic Gothic horror story, Frankenstein.
It helps that they have put together a host of big screen names, each of whom fills his role to perfection, given great support by their less lauded but equally proficient fellows.
In a rare but not unique experiment, shaven-headed Jonny Lee Miller and shaggy-haired Benedict Cumberbatch are alternating as Victor Frankenstein and his nameless Creature, needing bald and hirsute wigs as appropriate. The man after whom this auditorium is named, Laurence Olivier swapped Romeo and Mercutio with John Gielgud in another famous pairing, though not so regularly.
Danny Boyle, who long ago gave up the theatre to direct such unforgettable films as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, sets out to demonstrate what theatregoers have been missing. He succeeds, showing an unexpected gift for theatricality in his dark and at times terrifying vision.
This feeling for what is effective on stage is epitomised early on by a railway car that moves across the stage spewing sparks before ending its journey with nose poked into the front couple of rows of the audience.
The setting by Mark Tildesley has a big budget, which is less than obvious at the start, when a church bell in the middle of the audience is the only obvious adornment to a bare stage space that is circular, with every angle changed into soft curves.
Later, as a novelty, the full scope of this theatre's revolve, complete with rising sets is allowed an airing, enhanced by a canopy of gorgeous lights.
Before the special effects make an appearance, the disfigured monster emerges from an artificial womb to writhe about the empty stage like a dying fish for ten minutes, slowly like a babe, learning to stand and then walk.
The educative process continues with the assistance of a kindly, blind, dispossessed professor played by Karl Johnson. He nurtures the foundling and teaches it speech and the ability to read and understand Milton, as well as showing an innate goodness that the Creature imbibes and copies.
He also discusses the notion of original sin, which is the main subject of the play. The newly-minted being might lack beauty but has no malice until unwarranted beatings eventually take their toll and he becomes brutalised.
Gradually, he is taunted into murder and eventually, after being double crossed by his less than divine creator, learns to lie and take revenge. By the dazzling final image, he has also discovered that slow torture can hurt far more than a swiftly broken neck. The latter is the almost merciful fate of Naomie Harris's sweet, if a little flighty, Elizabeth, the bride practically forsaken by the mad inventor, who prefers egotistical power to tender love.
While the support is good, it is the two leads who will deservedly get all of the attention in what might be seen as roles playing men that are two sides of the same coin.
On the first press night, the casting is the more obvious, with Jonny Lee Miller, who played Sickboy for Boyle in Trainspotting, giving his all as the hideous monster and doing so brilliantly, as much when he is drawing sympathy from the audience as scaring them.
Benedict (Sherlock) Cumberbatch is a worthy, if a little underwritten, Frankenstein, the maniacal genius who loses his head and, as a consequence his soul, after dreaming into existence something that might turn out to be either a new Adam or Satan.
The following night, the roles were reversed and there are some differences. Benedict Cumberbatch seems more studied and less natural as The Creature, though at times he injects a touch of additional pathos.
As Frankenstein, Cumberbatch has a greater supply of nervous energy and a little less certainty than the assured Miller, which fits the character.
Make no mistake, the show is almost equally effective either way and with tickets at a premium, the two hours should delight regardless of casting.
In this new play, based on a story that has taken on mythic qualities, we can not only enjoy a ripping yarn but also ponder over a series of fascinating moral and ethical questions. These seem all too timely when the idea of scientists creating imperfectly cloned versions of human beings is becoming a real possibility.
As such, Frankenstein will be a theatrical highlight of the spring and, who knows, perhaps the year?
Reviewer: Philip Fisher