Gone is the black and gray, ill-fitting suit, neck bolts, and lumbering walk in platform shoes. This time Victor Frankenstein’s iconic creature has been taken back to his origins in author Mary Shelley’s nightmare turned into one of the first and most famous examples of horror and science fiction. The National Theatre produced an epic version of “Frankenstein” penned by Nick Dear and directed on a grand scale by award-winning director Danny Boyle.
Let me say this right off the bat: ‘Frankenstein’ is a must-see at-home theatre. Full stop.
Doyle, Dear – and indeed Mary Shelley – along with the designers and acting company led by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller created a magnificent piece of theatre that must have been a wonder to behold on the massive Olivier Stage in London. How lucky are we that the National decided to film this production as part of their stage-to-cinema National Theatre Live series. Now the theatre, in response to COVID-19 isolation and the closing of stages all over the world, is offering this “Frankenstein” for the 21st century for free via YouTube for a limited time.
Let me say this right off the bat: “Frankenstein” is a must-see at-home theatre. Full stop.
As visceral and raw as it is literate and tinged with poetic value, “Frankenstein” is the kind of theatre one does not expect to see in a world influenced by CGI-infused films and Disney’s seemingly 80 percent takeover of all entertainment. Boyle’s production of Dear’s compelling text is visually arresting, physically wondrous, and is acted with skill and passion by a first-class company of players – one of the hallmarks of the National Theatre.
In an ingenious bit of casting, Boyle brought on two powerhouses to share the two main roles. Throughout the run of the production in 2011, Benedict Cumberbatch alternated with Jonny Lee Miller in the roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein. If you dial up this production in either version, it is difficult to imagine such a casting coup; but, through the magic of YouTube, you can toggle back and forth between the productions to prove it was done and done brilliantly. I decided to focus on the Cumberbatch as Creature and Miller as Victor-version. In other words, the British “Sherlock” and the American “Elementary” star go head to head as monster and creator. Or is it creation and monster? If you only know these actors from their film and television appearances, please take advantage of this fleeting but prime opportunity to see two master stage actors at work.
Cumberbatch, by my way of looking at it, is physically ideal for the creature in this iteration of the classic horror tale. Tall and gangly naturally, Cumberbatch brings the newborn awkwardness to his birth effortlessly. Watching his awakening in the play’s opening moments, one is immediately sympathetic to his tender state. As he explores his new world, there is childlike innocence, which is followed by moments of tenderness and rage at the true nature of his condition. He was born to play this role and has a field day with it.
Miller brings a light madness and intensity to Victor Frankenstein, amazed yet repulsed by his creation, at odds with what to do now that his child has actually been born. Their relationship is further complicated when Victor introduces the bride he makes after the creature begs for him to provide her for him. Miller offers a grand contrast to Cumberbatch and shows layers of complexity many other versions of this story have skipped over.
It should be noted the double-casting was not overlooked at the time of the London theatre awards that year. In 2012, Miller and Cumberbatch earned a shared Olivier Award for best actor for their dual turns in “Frankenstein.”
Playwright Dear takes the bones of Shelley’s novel and adds his own touches to the story which work hand-in-hand with Boyle’s earthy, fantastical physical production. Along with the gothic horror and disturbing imagery of Victor Frankenstein’s questionable experiments and creations, Dear brings up the further themes of scientific ethics and responsibility, parental neglect, and the old chestnut of good versus evil. There are variations in the plot points, which only the Shelley purists will likely miss. One aspect I appreciated the most, is this is the tale as told from the Creature’s perspective; the entire play emits from the birth of the creature through to the climax.
Boyle’s production is buttressed by a wide-open stage, accented with spare set pieces designed by Mark Tildesley, including a Steam-Punk-inspired contraption deserving an award for special effects. Rain effects, and pulsating lighting effects – provided by an estimated 3,500 vintage-style lightbulbs – designed by Bruno Poet further enhance the striking imagery throughout the show.
Another striking element of the production set upon the vast Olivier Stage are the times the deck is nearly empty, save for the creature or Victor, which shines a light on the loneliness which permeates the original story as only live theatre can bring to life.
As we still spend most of our lives under the COVID-19 based restrictions, it was a sobering couple of hours to spend time with Victor Frankenstein and his creation – a tale of science and ego run amok – knowing science and medical research is urging us to stay separated from others and away from the mainstream of our daily routines. A new form of loneliness where we can take a trip to the National Theatre from the comfort of our sofa and laptop. Oh, Mary Shelley: what would you think of your creation now?
Advisory: Brief nudity, adult situations and mild language. Recommended for ages 12 and up.
Running Time: 2 hours – streaming.
“Frankenstein” with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein, produced by National Theatre Live, is available to watch for free on the theatre’s YouTube page through this Thursday at 2 pm. Click here for the Cumberbatch/Creature version. Also available is the alternate version where Miller and Cumberbatch switch roles, available until Friday at 2 pm; click here for that version.