Nick Dear's adaptation of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN as directed by Danny Boyle is as close to a contemporary tragedy as I have seen. The central character, a physically deformed man-made creature, learns how to behave from human example. As people curse him, beat him and betray him, he learns to curse, to kill and, from his creator, to lie. From a kind blind man who takes him in for a year, he learns to speak and to read. This is Frankenstein's monster (called The Creature in this version) as a poetry-loving intellectual who wants to be rational and good in a nasty world. His cruelty often seems more rational, less nasty than that of the people around him. Above all, he is lonely. He hunts down his creator -- arrogant, heartless Victor Frankenstein -- and demands a mate to alleviate his loneliness. Eventually he and Victor, two different kinds of monster, become linked forever in an endless chase. In the first half hour we see the monster born and learn the things a child needs to learn -- to stand, to walk, to eat -- but without anyone's help. His creator takes one look at him and rejects him as an experiment gone wrong and not worth his attention -- not even worth killing. But this creature is intelligent, sensitive, articulate and much more capable of feeling than his creator. This is not the old FRANKENSTEIN as scary melodrama. There is much food for thought here.
There is also one of the most impressive theatrical productions I have seen in years. The experience starts in the lobby with ominous noises. The entire theatre has been transformed into a strange environment. Lots of smoke and noise. A large bell rings occasionally. A giant, strange light sculpture looms overhead. It will be the bolts of electricity that bring the creature to life and, later, the night stars. All the gimmicks of the Olivier Theatre are used effectively. The designers have done most of their work in film, but seem to be having a ball working with the possibilities of the Olivier stage and auditorium.
One of the interesting aspects of this production is that Benedict Cumberpatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate as Victor and The Creature (there will be two opening nights and two HD theatrical transmissions so audiences can see the play both ways). We saw Miller as the creature and Cumberpatch as Victor. This on paper looks like the most logical casting. Miller is always an adventurous actor. Here he is absolutely mesmerizing. Cumberpatch was good in the less challenging role. I didn't feel it was all there in this preview, but I imagine the lead actors are spending more time and energy on developing the creature. There's more to be found in Victor, particularly in the scene in which the creature describes what love feels like. Does Victor realize in that moment that his creature is his emotional and spiritual superior or does he only fear the idea of the creature breeding? Of course, one doesn't want the camp acting of Colin Clive in the classic film, but Victor is as internally deformed as his creation is physically deformed and we need to see that a bit more. The actor playing the creature has almost an hour to establish his character and the audience's sympathies before we get a real scene with Victor. Therefore Victor has to be painted in vivid colors quickly. I have a feeling that at this stage Miller would do that better. My impression from his work on stage and television is that Cumberpatch is a good actor in the old tradition of British understated acting, quite different from the more daring actors of his generation: recent performances by Andrew Scott, Leo Bill, Rupert Young and Rory Kinnear come to mind. I'd like to go back and see it the other way round for I can't quite see Cumberpatch as the creature. It's casting against type, but that can be the most interesting casting. It might totally change my idea of Cumberpatch as an actor. You certainly can't understate the creature. The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. The always excellent Karl Johnson is superb as the creature's old blind teacher. Otherwise the performances range from OK to poor in the case of the actor playing Victor's father. One problem with the play is that it so much centers on the creature that other characters seem distractions unless they have a direct relationship with him. The play sags a bit when the creature is offstage. Frankenstein's fiance, Elizabeth, only becomes interesting in her scene with the creature. Even Victor only becomes important when the creature needs him. I do think the very brief first scene when Victor runs off in horror at the sight of the creature could be more fully developed. Perhaps it will be during later previews.
This has been a hit and miss year for the National. The best new plays go elsewhere and some of the revivals have only been so-so, like the recent TWELFTH NIGHT. Some of the work, like GREENLAND and SEASON'S GREETINGS is just poor. However, FRANKENSTEIN is what the National does well -- a fine big play demanding the resources of that well-heeled organization. I can imagine it in a simpler production, but Danny Boyle and his designers have justified every bit of spectacle. FRANKENSTEIN is a sign of changes at the National. Although it has often brought in fine actors with television and film credits, it has never before in my memory given its stars two page bios in the program with giant photographs. Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Vanessa Redgrave didn't get that. There was always the illusion of an ensemble even when stars were in the leads. This is pure star system. Obviously Messrs. Miller and Cumberpatch have very good agents.
It is interesting that the National's riveting FRANKENSTEIN is following Rory Kinnear's brilliant Hamlet onto the Olivier stage. They plays have a good deal in common -- a cruel society forces a good person to become a killer. Like Hamlet, the creature is a brilliant, articulate, poetic man suffering isolation and disillusionment. Frankenstein's creature is one of the best written characters to appear on the London stage in a long time and this production is truly a special event. It's a must-see.
FRANKENSTEIN, adapted from the Mary Shelley novel by Nick Dear. Directed by Danny Boyle. The fantastic sets designed by Mark Tildesley, lit by Bruno Poet. Costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb. National Theatre Olivier Theatre. February 15, 2011