Nick Dear based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Olivier Theatre / NT Theatre at Home
The revolutionary concept of NT Live was still in its infancy when Danny Boyle’s acclaimed 2011 production of Frankenstein opened on the Olivier Stage at the National Theatre. Riding the crest of the Benedict Cumberbatch / Sherlock pandemic sweeping the nation at the time, audiences flocked to the cinema (over 800,000 worldwide) to see Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller swap roles, alternating as The Creature and Victor Frankenstein.
As we continue with life in lockdown, the National now brings us NT at Home (free), and this week, another chance to see this imaginative production. I saw Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature back in 2011 thanks to NT Live (and whose performance can also be seen on NT at Home until 7PM, 8 May). For this review, I saw the performance with Miller as Frankenstein and Cumberbatch as The Creature.
Instantly summoning a gothic vibe, a huge bell tolls as a figure inside a veined, pulsing ‘womb’ paws and pushes its way out, slithering onto an otherwise empty stage. What seems like a million light bulbs crackle and surge with light and energy as the newly born Creature appears to mirror human evolution before our eyes: from flapping fish to reptile to crawling and then upright human.
This is a stunning physical performance by Cumberbatch; his combination of joy and concentration as he staggers, toddler-like—stiff-legged and arms raised—while trying to learn to walk is hugely impressive. Rejected by his creator Frankenstein, The Creature escapes into the outside world, enduring taunts and cruelty over his appearance. Finally finding shelter, food and an education with the blind old academic De Lacey (Karl Johnson), The Creature learns to read, to talk and consider the concept of original sin, courtesy of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
The Creature blossoms and carries out good deeds unseen and unknown by De Lacey’s son and daughter-in law, however, when they meet him they reject him. Hurt and betrayed, The Creature begins his path of cruelty and revenge—and to find his creator.
Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s seminal novel focuses on the ‘journey’ of The Creature. Whilst a powerful and thought-provoking play in itself, this focus comes at the expense of a fuller understanding of Frankenstein, and thus an underdeveloped character. Miller is excellent in the role but we have no real insight into why he created The Creature, or indeed why Elizabeth (Naomie Harris) would remain engaged to such an arrogant and unfeeling man.
Elizabeth is one of the few people who genuinely tries to connect with The Creature beyond his appearance and shows him kindness, adding fuel to the suggestion that maybe Frankenstein and The Creature are just two sides of the same person, rather than father / son or master / slave.
Theatrically, this is a thrilling production. Bruno Poet’s lighting design pulses with power as the huge chandelier of lightbulbs hovers majestically above the stage. Mark Tildesley’s set design also impresses: the evocation of the final icy landscape and dingy darkness of Frankenstein’s Orkney hideaway as he creates The Creature’s ‘Eve’ is made all the more sinister with Underworld’s menacing and eerie soundscape. An ingenious revolve allows the contrasts between the splendour of Frankenstein’s family mansion and the bleak frozen polar wastes to be effectively realised. It must have been quite something to be in the front few rows as the sparking beast of an industrial train comes to a hissing stop in your midst, the steampunk-clad workers hammering and moulding metal.
Shelley subtitled her novel "A Modern Prometheus", and this idea of the dangers inherent in the quest for knowledge resulting in unintended consequences, together with the argument "just because you can doesn’t mean you should" is not lost in this production. It is gothic on an innovative, theatrical scale and a gripping couple of hours—and worth seeing Cumberbatch and Miller in both roles if you can.
Reviewer: Sally Jack