National Theatre, London, 14 March 2011
Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein; Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature
Rating: * * * * *
‘Slowly I learnt the ways of humans: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learnt how to lie…’
— Nick Dear, Frankenstein, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
There is no doubt that Frankenstein is the hottest theatre ticket this side of Christmas. Sold out, the run extended for another month, then sold out again, queues begin forming at 4am in the hope of getting day tickets. And it is certainly worth the effort. The combined team of director Danny Boyle and leads Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who alternate the roles of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein each night, have produced a truly unforgettable theatrical experience.
Forget Boris Karloff with a bolt through his neck. This Creature is heart-wrenchingly human, and Frankenstein is, ultimately, his story. From the start, where he is born, naked and writhing, onto the stage, the audience is asked to sympathise with his plight. In an astonishing opening sequence, we witness the Creature’s agonising first moments of life as he tests his shaky limbs and discovers the strength of his own vocal cords. Victor appears only once in the first fifteen minutes, and it is his horrified abandonment of his creation that sets the events of the rest of the play in motion.
From start to finish, Miller’s performance is astonishing. He holds nothing back in his portrayal of this wronged being, in complete contrast to Cumberbatch’s cold, cruel scientist. The two leads balance each other perfectly: one seeking companionship, the other only knowledge, both unwillingly dependent on each other. It is their chemistry that makes this play so special, and, ultimately, tragic. With so much emphasis laid on Victor’s guilt, on the pitfalls of trying to exact divine providence, the audience leaves the theatre questioning which is the true monster of the piece.
Not surprisingly for a production which marks Danny Boyle’s return to the theatre after 15 years, the visuals are stunning. Big set pieces rise from the depths and drop from the ceiling, and laboratories, lakes, and even a fully-mechanised steam train are recreated on the Olivier stage. This Frankenstein is so much more than the story; it is a truly sensuous production that stays with you long after the curtain falls.
Yet it is not flawless; Nick Dear’s script is weak, and this is reflected in the supporting cast, who are not given much to work with and, sadly, fail to deliver. Naomie Harris, as Victor’s doomed bride Elizabeth, is incongruous as a 21st century girl in an early 19th century setting, and George Harris (Kingsley in the Harry Potter films) takes an unconvincing turn as Victor’s hapless father. If it weren’t so much a two-man show, the ensemble might have stood more of a chance, but as it is, they seem almost superfluous.
Nevertheless, with the reunited Trainspotting dream team of Boyle, Miller, and Underworld, who created the music for the show, and the drawing-power of the captivating Cumberbatch, Frankenstein was always going to be a hit. Yes, the script could have been tighter, but it savours the essence of Shelley’s original text, and stellar performances, combined with astonishing visuals, confirm why we have a National Theatre in the first place. This production is a must-see.
Frankenstein is at the National Theatre until 2 May 2011. Tickets are sold out but limited Day Seats and standing room only are available.
Photos by Catherine Ashmore.