February 2011 saw the premiere at The Royal National Theatre in London of Frankenstein, written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle. The play proved a masterful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, capturing both the horror and above all the tragedy at the heart of the story. Since then, recordings of this production have been screened in cinemas in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Now, due to the Covid-19 crisis, the production has been made available on YouTube, as part of the National Theatre at Home fundraising campaign. It is strange, reviewing a recording of a play, viewing it through the lens of a camera—at once more intimate and more restricted. However, I was still enraptured.
This play is a triumph, as is perhaps to be expected of the National Theatre. The set is nothing short of spectacular. A legion of lightbulbs suspended above the stage flare with the ‘spark of life’, harkening to the galvanic experiments that first inspired Shelley. A train thunders into life, a sublime introduction to the world of the industrial revolution for both the audience and The Creature. Sets rotate, trapdoors descend into graves, and snow falls onto a grassy plain lit by a solitary moon.
Then there are the performances. One intriguing feature of this production is that Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternated the roles of The Creature and Victor Frankenstein (two recordings of the production are available on YouTube, showcasing both casts). I watched Cumberbatch as The Creature and Miller as Frankenstein first, and perhaps novelty bias has coloured my opinion but, while both actors give compelling performances in either role, I prefer this casting. Wisely eschewing the novel’s framing device and most of Victor’s backstory to focus on the emotional conflict at the story’s core, the story follows The Creature’s point of view predominantly as he transitions from helpless innocent to well-educated monster. Both Cumberbatch and Miller prove themselves remarkable as physical actors, for example in the opening ten minutes which are devoted solely to The Creature waking and learning to walk. However, Cumberbatch’s Creature is playful and expressive where Miller is more restrained. Cumberbatch’s peals of childish laughter are uncanny—his Creature begins ‘life’ not so much animalistic, as a toddler in an adult man’s mutilated flesh—but the jubilant wonder with which he reacts to his first viewing of the sun is instantly endearing. Even later, after cruelty has driven The Creature to be cruel himself, this physical exuberance remains in his gestures, both serving as a painful reminder to the audience of his careless origins, physically marking him as the foil to Frankenstein’s cold stiffness. As Frankenstein, Miller is more charismatic than Cumberbatch. The character is an egomaniac, but Miller expresses this mainly in a shameless admiration for his own intellect, while Cumberbatch plays a quieter Frankenstein whose bitter contempt for the ‘little men’ around him reveals itself in sudden bursts of rage.
There is much more to praise in this production. Karl Johnson as De Lacy, the blind man who educates The Creature, and Naomie Harris as Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, both deserve recognition for their performances. Costume decisions are subtle but meaningful: the more abhorrent The Creature grows in his behaviour, the more elaborate and ‘civilised’ his clothing becomes. The score by Underworld is at turns joyous, mournful and sinister. The Creature’s makeup, reminiscent of a botched surgery, is macabre.
Above all, this is an adaptation that understands and inhabits its source material. The doubling of Frankenstein and The Creature shows how often fear of The Other is in fact rooted in fear of the self. The themes of religion and parental responsibility feature heavily from the moment Victor abandons his Creation. Above all, the play understands that the tragedy of The Creature, skilled in ‘the art of assimilation’, is that he is a mirror of all humanity’s faults.
Nine years on from its opening night, this is still a play that demands to be experienced.