Writer: Nick Dear
Director: Danny Boyle
No man is a monster’ yet nineteenth-century literature was obsessed with the idea that maybe they were. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are all concerned with the essential duality of man’s nature, the hidden and the visible. Danny Boyle’s outstanding interpretation of the latter is one of the National Theatre’s finest productions and Jonny Lee Miller’s turn in the role of the Creature is the latest premiere on its National Theatre at Home YouTube channel.
A man is born fully formed in a womb-like lab and rapidly chased into the city where he is met with fear and brutality. Wandering alone the Creature learns to appreciate nature while a kindly old man teaches him to read great literature and to understand philosophy, but when further cruelty is heaped upon him, the Creature heads to Geneva in search of his creator Doctor Frankenstein.
Boyle’s unbroken two-hour production is a dazzling spectacle onstage as scenes flow effortlessly from farmhouses to city streets and the smoky white purity of the Arctic. Set designer Mark Tildesley and Lighting Designer Bruno Poet fill the vast Olivier stage with colour and light – always characteristic of Boyle’s vision in his film work – using the various functions of the revolve to create spectacle after spectacle, watched over by a wave of light, the electrical charge and spark of life so vital to this story.
On screen it is an incredible display of the National Theatre’s resources, and as steam trains emerge from a burst of blinding light and the red-bathed fiery fate of a key character turns instantaneously into the cool still beauty of Lake Geneva every moment is astonishingly beautiful. The shot selection adds considerably to the effect, offering aerial views denied to those in the theatre that capture the breadth and physical shape of the set as well as the intimacy of the characters.
With the production famously alternating the lead roles (both versions are simultaneously available for a week) with Jonny Lee Miller playing the Creature there is an even darker tone to the show, as his much more adult interpretation adds a physical danger that suits the doom-laden atmosphere of Boyle’s production in which a tolling bell marks the chapters of this story.
Nick Dear’s adaptation eschews the usual forms of period set stories and unnecessary exposition to create a more abstract collection of scenes, snapshots of story that build to form a cohesive drama as three years elapses from the Creature’s birth. The emphasis is on the formation and ultimate falsity of morality, showing how successive broken promises shape the eye-for-an-eye violence of Miller’s Creature.
This Creature emerges a fully formed man, an adult body and mind slowed only by the stitches and compromised anatomy of his construction. The rapidity of the Creature’s development relies less on physical tics than vocal changes, tightening the mouth and tongue, improving the crispness of the diction as the story unfolds. And while the Creature’s speech is never entirely perfect Miller’s imposingly physical performance is balanced by the development of intellect, reason and a sense of justice.
As Frankenstein, Benedict Cumberbatch conveys the arrogance and absorption of a man unprepared to face the consequences of his actions. It is more than 95-minutes until someone asks him why he created a man, and Cumberbatch intriguingly suggests the almost naïve delusion of a scientist playing God as well as the attraction of controlling nature, his arrogant desire to sit above the ‘little people’ living ordinary lives.
Karl Johnson is adorable as the caring De Lacey and Naomie Harris proves a great foil as the frustrated Elizabeth fighting for air in Frankenstein’s limited and rather sexist world. Some of the secondary characters are a little too stagey but when Miller and Cumberbatch finally come together, across a number of thrilling scenes, they are electrifying. Frankenstein and the Creature complete each other; beneath our social veneer the monsters are lurking.
Streaming here until 8 May 2020
Read our review for Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature here