National Theatre at Home review: Frankenstein
Ivan Radford | On 03, May 2020
“I should be Adam. God was proud of Adam. But Satan’s the one I sympathise with.” That’s Frankenstein’s Creature in the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein. As for who actually said it, though, that’s another matter entirely. First staged in 2011, the production – directed by Danny Boyle – alternated its leading men, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller taking it in turns to play Victor and the monster he creates by joining together parts of dead bodies and reanimating them. All of that science and experimentation, though, is treated as prologue, pushed out of the way so that we start with the creature being born on stage.
It’s a bold statement of intent for an adaptation of Frankenstein that leaves Frankenstein largely off-stage until the second half, effectively telling the story from the perspective of the being he creates. The result emphasises the human tragedy in a tale of scientific folly and brings a fresh angle to the debate of nature vs nurture. More evident than ever is Frankenstein’s great crime: not just playing God, but then abandoning his creation the moment he’s finished.
The bravura opening is a 10-minute near-silent sequence that simply sees the creature attempting to work out how his muscles and limbs work. In other hands, this Bambi-like sequence could be played for laughs, but it’s testament to the atmosphere, the lighting, the sound and the stage design that we don’t laugh once. And, of course, it’s testament to the actors, who each throw themselves into the athletic display of gyrating, stumbling and falling that leaves you wincing and gasping at each failed attempt to take a step forward – and smiling as the ability to run around the stage is finally unlocked.
It’s here that the dual casting really starts to pay off, as each actor brings their own interpretation of Frankenstein’s Creature to bear even in the most primal moments. Miller, you sense, is a more natural Creature, in the way he brings a softer side to the stitched, bloody figure, while Cumberbatch’s erupts with a violent, manic energy. By the time the Creature is talking, reading Paradise Lost and arguing for his own existence – and need for a mate – Cumberbatch’s does so with a chilling entitlement and desperation, while Miller’s feels more driven by the human need for compassion. They both resent their maker and depend upon him, and take pleasure – or don’t – in that inevitable bond that ties them together.
Their interpretations of Frankenstein, too, have subtle differences, as Cumberbatch brings out the melancholic, fallen genius of the foolish scientist and Miller’s egomaniac feels more like a mad inventor, the former bringing more humanity to Viktor, the latter bringing more humanity to the Creature.
Neither is better than the other – both are remarkable, visceral, moving and magnetic – but they both inform each other, and that symbiotic relationship gets to the heart of what makes the National Theatre’s Frankenstein so effective. Nick Dear’s script manages to hew impressively close to Mary Shelley’s novel, while Danny Boyle’s direction gives the two performers a safe enough space to twist the words to their own means.
Boyle’s filmmaking style has always been breathlessly energetic, and his staging brings that kinetic storytelling to a physical environment. The Industrial Revolution is fused thrillingly with steampunk flourishes, as trains, cogs, chains and lights skew the revolving stage into segments – by the time we’ve gone from the burnt houses and remote bridges of the human world to the isolated snowy desolation of the finale, there’s no doubting how cruel the world this Creature had to face is. You can see the fingerprints of Boyle’s later Olympics opening ceremony all over this, with a real understanding of how to use the space to maximum, striking effect.
The result is a bold, extravagant theatrical achievement, one that asks us whether this cautionary tale is one of nature or nurture – then dares us to sympathise with the other side of the argument. A mature adaptation of a classic that feels at once faithful and radical. Watch it once – then watch it again.
Frankenstein is available in both versions on YouTube until 7pm on Thursday 7th May.