Writer: Nick Dear
Director: Danny Boyle
The National Theatre has pulled out the big guns for its fifth week of streaming with Danny Boyle’s 2011 production of Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, both of whom take turns to play the monster. Over the next seven days, both versions will be available to stream on the NT’s YouTube channel. In 2011, coming fast after Cumberbatch found international fame in Sherlock, Nick Dear’s version of Mary Shelley’s novel was an electric sell-out, but now, nine years later, some of the sparkle has fizzed away.
This filmed version was also a big hit in the cinemas, reaching over 800, 000 people worldwide, and another 100, 000 were watching the live premiere stream last night. The National’s Olivier is a harder theatre to film than, say, the Lyttleton with its proscenium arch, as the stage is vast and circular. The cameras capture most of the action, but because the creature is always moving, jerking and gesticulating, clumping around the stage, they struggle to close up on Cumerbatch’s face making him a surprisingly distant figure for filmed theatre.
Dear’s adaptation starts half way through Shelley’s book with the ‘birth’ of the creature, here breaking out of an alien-like egg, and for the first ten minutes of the show we see Cumberbatch struggle to stand and walk. The lights are mainly dark and red, but occasionally and excitingly bulbs hanging above the stage thrum and flash with light, and, importantly, with life. The creature soon gains his feet, and with the help of an old farmer he meets he soon finds language.
But along with language comes loneliness, and the creature goes back to his creator, Victor Frankenstein, to beg for a female companion. This showdown between Frankenstein and his creator, between Miller and Cumberbatch, is a little disappointing as much of the novel’s philosophical questions about the meaning of life are pushed out to focus on the story of revenge. Too soon the men are separated and the story goes on its merry way.
The acting increasingly becomes hammy with poor Naomie Harris( pre- Miss Moneypenny days) having to exclaim lines such as ‘Kiss me Victor’ ( to her husband) or ‘I’ll be your friend!’ (to the monster). Boyle also throws us some very fresh Scottish accents, and occasionally his play teeters on parody. Cumberbatch is fine if we are to judge him on his twitches and gurnings, and the chumping of his teeth seems to play homage to the zombies on The Walking Dead. He doesn’t bring much pathos to the role.
Miller is a wide-eyed, sleep-deprived Frankenstein, and like his monster, hardly still. He shouts, croakily, to almost everyone he meets, and yet he still manages to arouse pity in ways that Cumberbatch cannot. It will be interesting to see whether, when the roles are reversed, Miller retains the sympathy of the audience. A key scene has been edited out in the filmed version, and this omission can misdirect any compassion one has for the monster.
The show may be two hours long but Boyle keeps the action moving so quickly that the time flies by and Mark Tildesley’s expansive and bleak set holds enough surprises. But therein may lie the problem; what could be a wonderful play about ideas is jettisoned for action. Frankenstein may create life, but Dear’s play lacks intellectual life.
With Cumberbatch as the creature, Frankenstein runs here until 7 May 2020
Read our review of Frankenstein with Jonny Lee Miller as the creature here