Review: Frankenstein, National Theatre, Wednesday 16 March 2011

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

John Milton, Paradise Lost

It is possibly the greatest marketing ploy known to theatre: two stars alternating two lead roles, making it almost obligatory to return for a second helping. Yet in Danny Boyle’s hotly anticipated return to the theatre with this stage version of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, this casting choice is far from superfluous. In Shelley’s dark and troubling tale, the Creature that ambitious scientist Victor Frankenstein creates becomes not only his offspring but his double, an unsettling duality that lies at the centre of Nick Dear’s thematically focused adaptation.

In Dear’s theatrical reimagining of Shelley’s novel, considerable liberties are taken with the structure, stripping away the complicated layers of narrative and moving the central birth of the Creature to the beginning in a truly breaktaking opening scene. A naked, misshapen figure falls from the man-made womb in the centre of the stage and gropingly explores his surroundings and his own body as lights crackle and flare above him. In a series of successive scenes, Mark Tildesley’s extraordinary set becomes the second protagonist as the Creature is confronted with the terrifying and wonderful world around him.

I was not fortunate enough to get that second helping of the National Theatre’s production and only saw Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, a role that he completely inhabits. Opening a production with a lengthy scene in which no one speaks is a bold risk and one that could have sent an audience to sleep, but Miller is ceaselessly captivating as he discovers his physical sensations and abilities before our eyes in a stunning physical performance. Throughout the early scenes his Creature is child-like, inquisitive and endearing, forming an entire character by uttering nothing more than gurgling, gutteral sounds.

While Dear’s manipulation of the chronology creates a compelling visual opening, this adaptation loses the events preceding the Creature’s birth and the motivations driving his maker, Frankenstein. The scientist who dared to play God barely enters the play until the second half, when his creation returns to wreak revenge and make a terrible bargain. With such a lack of explanation behind his character, the role of Frankenstein could flounder in lesser hands but Benedict Cumberbatch perfectly conveys the scientist’s blend of genius and arrogance in a powerful performance to match Miller’s.

Every element of this play, from the script to the publicity material, makes it clear that the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature is the central concern. It is in the confrontations between creator and creation that Dear’s words really come into their own, sprinkled liberally with references to Milton that emulate the spirit of Mary Shelley’s novel, as the two characters engage in empassioned debate. Cumberbatch regards the product of his labours with both pride and disgust, while Miller paints the Creature’s detested solitude with poignancy. Who, this production makes us ask, is the real monster?

Such an intense focus on the central pairing, however, detracts from other areas of the play. There is the sense that Dear skipped over the scenes featuring other characters, desperate to return to writing his fascinating leads. The removal of the first portion of the novel in order to focus on the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature also means that much is told, sometimes awkwardly, rather than being shown.

Likewise, Boyle seems to have given less attention to the rest of the cast, not making full use of a strong ensemble. It is unclear in what direction the production intends to take Naomie Harris’s Elizabeth; at times she looks set to emerge as a gutsy advocate of women’s education in what could have been an interesting twist, but the next moment she is played girlish and submissive. Other characters, meanwhile, are neglected to the point of almost disappearing completely.

Nevertheless, despite any such shortcomings, Boyle and the National Theatre undoubtedly have something special on their hands. If Benedict and Miller are as impressive in the opposite combination of roles then they will surely be in contention for the best performances of the year, while Boyle’s bold direction proves that he has certainly not lost his touch when it comes to the theatre. Tildesley too has achieved a triumph with his striking design that transports us from a misty Lake Geneva to the barren, icy landscape of the Arctic.

Frankenstein is unsurprisingly sold out for the entire run, but beg, borrow or steal a ticket. This visual tour-de-force may just prove to be one of the theatrical experiences of the year.

Check back to the blog next week for a more in-depth feature about how Mary Shelley’s creation has been transformed in the process of translating the novel from page to stage.

2 Responses to “Review: Frankenstein, National Theatre, Wednesday 16 March 2011”
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  1. […] from the Daily Mail is that Benedict Cumberbatch, current star of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein, is lined up to revive his role in last year’s acclaimed After the Dance on Broadway, so […]

  2. […] is the toast of the town once more as Danny Boyle presents his sell-out, critically acclaimed production at the National Theatre. But just how has Mary Shelley’s nightmare creation been transformed from page to […]

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