Every so often a production is staged that captures the imagination far before the show’s first performance and sets tongues wagging with anticipation. Oscar-winner Danny Boyle’s return to stage direction at the National Theatre, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating in the lead roles of Frankenstein and his creature, is one such production.
The problem these shows always face is the weight of expectation placed upon them. Can they possibly live up to the hype or has the advanced publicity created a monster?
Certainly the first half hour of the show makes a big impact, with thrilling design twists and theatricality a plenty, before it settles into its plot-forcing stride. The audience is held outside the auditorium until the last minute, entering to find a giant bell suspended in the rafters – its rope hanging tantalisingly in the central aisle – the Olivier stage bathed in a hellish red light and occupied only by a man-sized artificial womb. This is not a monster brought to life artificially, this is a creature born to a parent.
For the first 15 minutes, both men, as the creature, command the Olivier’s vast stage though they have no dialogue, little interaction and not even any costume to speak of. Miller finds a child-like wonder in the young creature discovering has ability to move, clutching at his feet and laughing with unrestrained joy as he runs, while Cumberbatch imbues him instead with more animalistic, almost prehistoric tendencies. Indeed, for the entire performance, Miller’s creature is the more human of the two, always stumbling and lisping with an air of vulnerability, while Cumberbatch is more centred and controlled, made colder and harder by his oppression and rejection.
In the role of the scientist Victor Frankenstein, Cumberbatch finds more of the bristling, strutting arrogance that went someway to making the BBC revision of Sherlock such a success. Miller’s Frankenstein, though similarly absorbed in science and detached from emotion, finds marginally more sympathy for his abandoned creation.
If I have focused my comments on the central pairing it is because, in Nick Dear’s episodic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic, many of the supporting cast become cameo characters whose purpose is little more than to push the monster and his master forward.
In fact, Mark Tildesley’s remarkable set design – an innovative treat from a designer more used to working in film – Bruno Poet’s lighting and the score by regular Boyle collaborators Underworld arguably contribute more to proceedings than some of the lesser roles.
Anyone expecting a bolt-necked, high-foreheaded green monstrosity should think again. The monsters in this production are Victor and, in fact, most of the humans his creature meets, the creation painfully and heartbreakingly learning that what it means to be human is the capacity to hate, revile and lie.
A stunning suspended shard with more light fittings than a supersized Homebase hangs over the action during this tale of obsession, responsibility, the need for compassion and the loneliness of the outcast. There is as much electricity in the two central performances – no matter which way round they are played – as there is in this elaborately effective chandelier.