How better to celebrate the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary weekend than by seeing one of its recent runaway successes. Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein is now over two years old but still freshly remembered for its influence on the Olympic Opening Ceremony and most notably for the interchanging performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the role of Frankenstein and the Creature. I didn’t see this at the time, but, having been impressed by the NT Live Macbeth, I thought I’d give it a go.
Let’s deal with a couple of negative bits first. My natural scepticism slightly recoiled from the opening scene as the Creature is ‘born’ and undergoes a Bambi-like evolution from flailing to walking. As a device, it creates instant sympathy for him, but went on a bit too long, and in less competent hands than Cumberbatch would easily be cringeworthy. The supporting cast isn’t up- to-much, apart from the excellent Karl Johnson as the blind man that teaches the Creature about literature and humanity – everyone one else was a bit drama school. I couldn’t decide whether they seemed bad against the quality of acting from Lee Miller and Cumberbatch, or because they were just a bit rubbish – probably both.
I liked Boyle’s design, referencing the mechanical menace of the nineteenth-century whilst being stylistically modern and innovative. The scenes on Lake Geneva and in the hills are some of the best, with clever use of sound throughout which I wouldn’t normally notice. The stage is lit from above by a large wave containing hundreds of small lights which ripple and pulse with life as the atmosphere heightens.
Despite the title, it is the Creature that dominates around 70% of the stage time, and it is an extraordinary performance from Cumberbatch, who I’d thoughtlessly assumed would be better in the other role. His Creature is gentle and erudite, capable of high-minded philosophy that make his acts of brutal violence all the more shocking, especially when they are coldly chosen behaviours rather than unstoppable natural instincts. Cumberbatch spent some time researching the recovery of war and trauma sufferers which adds gravity to his portrayal and never once becomes parodied. Lee Miller’s detached and sometimes arrogant Frankenstein mirrors his creation’s isolation, whilst revelling in his God-like command over life. With no slight on Lee Miller’s performance, the part is a bit underwritten and could have done with more of Frankenstein’s motivation and reasoning, but the scenes between the two leads are intense and brilliantly played.
It took some getting used to but I really enjoyed this play, and it loses little of its power in the cinema-setting. You’ll come away with plenty of questions; you never quite decide which one is truly monstrous and, despite being about the creation of life, whether the veneer of civilised society and modes of etiquette just disguise rather than prevent the baser instincts of people to lie, harm and destroy.
Frankenstein is available in cinemas via NT Live – visit the website for dates and venues. Versions are available with both actors in the title roles.