“No man is a monster!” claims one of the characters in “Frankenstein,” partway through the thrillingly staged production, directed by Danny Boyle and produced at the UK’s Royal National Theatre in 2011. The staging turns that statement into a question, which makes for a bold, sweeping retelling of the classic horror story.
One of the best-known features of the production is that the two lead actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, playing Victor Frankenstein and the Creature he brings to life, alternate playing each role. The casting choice adds another layer of fluidity and complexity to the dark morality displayed by both characters. National Theatre Live is making the production available on its YouTube channel for a limited time, and viewers will have the opportunity to compare productions – this reviewer saw Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Victor Frankenstein and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature. (Read a review of the show with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature.)
At the beginning of the show and of the Creature’s life, there is light. A fizzy spark that wakes a figure trapped in a sphere. It’s alive! Or he’s alive, as we soon learn. What follows is a riveting sequence, finding the Creature taking control of his body and voice and going through the agony of walking and shouting.
Jonny Lee Miller is entrancing as the Creature in an intensely physical performance. Pieced together, with a seam bisecting his head, he has a hard time disguising himself from the cruel world he soon meets. Miller’s performance makes him an object of empathy, not of pity, made clear in his early refuge with a blind, older teacher (an excellent Karl Johnson) who educates him about the world. Nick Drear, who adapted the novel for the stage, says that both he and director Danny Boyle wanted to offer the Creature’s viewpoint, and to tell the story “from the perspective of the experiment rather than the experimenter.”
“…a bold, sweeping retelling of the classic horror story.“
The experimenter, Frankenstein, is also wonderful to watch, and a little more easy to hate. Little seen in the first half of the play except in a brief encounter showing his horror at his creation, Dr. Frankenstein’s first confrontation with the Creature is phenomenal. A supercilious man of science, the verbal battle between the two reveals his belief in his total dominion over the Creature. “I am your master, you should show me respect!” he shouts. “A master has responsibilities,” the Creature retorts, angry at his initial abandonment. Bruno Poet’s lighting design, made of up innumerable electric bulbs, could also allude to Edison, another high-minded inventor, albeit one who lived decades after this story’s early Victorian setting.
Cumberbatch excels in the role, his self-righteous belief in his own powers coming clear through Drear’s wonderful script. “In science, we keep our secrets,” he quips. Frankenstein keeps those secrets even from Elizabeth, his fiancé and cousin, who is interested in pro-creation of the more traditional kind. Sensitively portrayed by Naomie Harris, Elizabeth offers another foil to his obsession with controlling life.
Danny Boyle paces the show well, bringing chaotic flair especially to the early scenes, as the Creature is confronted by the industrial age in the form of a train onstage. Tim Van Someren’s direction of the broadcast does a nice job capturing Miller’s expressive performance, and the aerial shots bring to mind, whether intended or not, Frankenstein’s own exalted view of the world, looking down on its inhabitants like a god.
Still, it is the Creature who maintains our sympathies the most throughout, for better or worse. Convincing enough in his arguments to Frankenstein, the mad scientist agrees to a second experiment, to make the Creature his own mate, a dangerous bargain that leads the two characters towards a tragic climactic scene.
The show ultimately turns on its head the separation between monster and man, leaving the two leads locked in their final battle. It’s an unsettling ending to a phenomenal production.
Running time: About two hours.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 12 and up. Some violence.
“Frankenstein” will be streaming on National Theatre Live’s YouTube channel. The production with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature will be available until 2 p.m. ET on Thursday, May 7, and is available here.
The production with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature will be available until 2 p.m. ET on Friday, May 8, and is available here.