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The National Theatre’s ‘Frankenstein’ Show is an Engrossing Retelling of Mary Shelley’s Story

Back in February 2011, Danny Boyle’s production of Nick Dear’s drama Frankenstein at the National Theatre was one of the hottest tickets on the London stage. While there’s no doubt that the involvement of the 28 Days Later and Slumdog Millionaire director had something to do with that phenomena, the real big ticket was the casting of the central characters. In the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the creature, he stitched together the actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who alternated with each other on successive nights. At the time Miller had already built a respectable body of work, including the part of Sick Boy in Boyle’s Trainspotting, but Cumberbatch was the smoking hot property, coming fresh into the production from the huge success of BBC’s Sherlock. Curiously Miller was also shortly destined to step into the Great Detective’s deerstalker with the New York based series Elementary for CBS.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see Frankenstein on stage, but both the Miller and Cumberbatch versions have been preserved on film in the National’s archive and do surface from time to time on limited release. I was lucky enough to get to see the version with Cumberbatch as Victor and Miller as the creature. Since Nick Dear’s take on Mary Shelley’s story is told very much from the point of view of the creature, there is no hanging out by gibbets or graveyards while Victor gets busy with his needle and thread. As the show opens all we hear is a heartbeat and an electronic fizzing before the houselights go up and we witness the creature breaking out of his backlit artificial womb, like a chicken from an egg. Now for some reason the filmed record of the show spares us the full frontal assault of the completely naked Jonny Lee Miller that the National’s theatre audience were treated to, as free from the womb he writhes across the floor before rising to run around the stage all the time giggling like a toddler, thanks to a modesty preserving breechclout.

Horrified by the creature’s seeming madness, Victor casts him out with only a coat for protection. Once outside the laboratory the creature discovers Ingolstadt, a town in the grip of a steampunked industrial revolution, which is vividly brought to life when a locomotive formed of whirring gears and cogs careers across the stage. This confection of streaming lights and belching steam, appears to be powered by the rise and fall of the hammers and axes belonging to its onboard workers. It’s a stunningly brilliant creation of set designer by Mark Tildesley.

From there on the performance fairly faithfully follows the events from Shelley’s original text save for a few minor aberrations. Some of the cast of characters, such as Henry Clerval and Captain Walton get junked and the story is compressed to fit within what’s left of the play’s two hour run time.

Revolted by the creature’s hideous visage the locals shun him, which when he arrives at the De Lacey farmhouse results in one of the first of the moments of levity that punctuate the overwhelming tragedy of the narrative. As the blind family patriarch (Karl Johnson) tries to expand the creature’s vocabulary, his reward is being told to ‘Piss off!’ then ‘Bugger off!’, with those being the only words the creature has ever heard before, though in an affectionately childish way of course. The creature’s idyll learning with De Lacey is touching in its raw emotional intensity as it is the only instance where he is shown any genuine affection, it’s short-lived but it’s long enough for him to learn to read the journal Victor has carelessly left in the coat. Cast out yet again when De Lacey’s children return he takes his revenge for this betrayal of love and friendship by torching the cottage.

Victor’s journal leads the creature to the lake where he befriends Victor’s little brother Will (Haydon Downing). This of course does not end well for the child, and his body is found with pages from the journal. Determined to kill the creature Victor sets off in pursuit only to be persuaded to build the mate that his creation so desperately wants to end his loneliness. Moving to the Isle of Bute all seems to go well, until Will’s ghost rocks up and suggests that it’s a bad idea to let the creature father a future generation of monsters. Victor retirees to behind a backlit screen and dismembers the beautiful mate.

Returning to Ingolstadt Victor marries his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth (Naomie Harris), but in a moment redolent of Leamele’s 1931 movie on their wedding night he leaves her alone in their room to go searching for the creature. This leads to the production’s big jump scare when, as soon as the key turns in the lock, Miller leaps out from under the bedclothes. Despite Elizabeth offering the creature friendship, his grim determination to make Victor suffer as much as he has done leads to a violently disturbing revenge being taken, before the play reaches its conclusion on the Arctic ice.

Overall, I don’t think that the play really offered anything particularly new on the Frankenstein story, but I did find myself completely engrossed in it as the narrative unfolded. In part that was down to the brilliantly innovative set and lighting design by Mark Tildesley and Bruno Poet, combined with the sublime incidental music and sound from Underworld, although it was principally down to the remarkably intense performances by the two leads. Cumberbatch’s Victor is a flawed and vulnerable genius who allows his curiosity initially to get the better of his moral judgment. Once he jolts life into his creation his yellow streak well and truly kicks in. Miller is exceptionally good, in an extremely physical and emotional performance, as he takes the creature on a journey through the initial joy of birth to be followed by rejection, a brief hiatus of happy companionship and then back to betrayal and the desire for revenge, slurring his words like John Hurt in The Elephant Man, to cement the impression of of brain and body being been imperfectly stitched together. Initially weak and vulnerable, Miller’s creature grows in strength as Cumberbatch’s Victor wilts. Having thoroughly enjoyed this version I’d now really like to see the roles-reversed alternate version and see if Cumberbatch pulls off the creature as well as his co-star.

About Simon Ball

Simon is a child of the 1960s, his marmie liked Affred Hitchcock and he grew up on a diet of classic Dr Who, Hammer Horror, Heavy Metal, Goth and Spaghetti Westerns. He cut his journalistic teeth in 1976 interviewing the bass player from an unknown band called Motorhead, now what was his name? Since then he wasted several years in corporate PR, edited heritage products and got an MA in the History of Science before he fell off the truck and returned to the world he loves best. Simon is Editor in Chief of the Horror Hothouse website and a regular contributor to the Spooky Isles.

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