Directed by: Danny Boyle
Adapted by: Nick Dear
Venue: National Theatre, London
Running Until: April 17
The tale of Frankenstein is one that, since its original conception by Mary Shelley nearly two centuries ago, has undergone many contortions and adaptations until the green-faced, bolt-necked popular image reflects its original source rather more poorly than Frankenstein’s monster did. However, in Nick Dear’s new stage adaptation, embarking now at the National Theatre on its first run, Shelley’s original is reborn in all its monstrous splendour in a delicately nuanced modern production that tracks Shelley’s original to its bitterly despondent end.
Having Danny Boyle spearheading this production as director in his first theatre involvement in around 15 years perhaps makes this success unsurprising, particularly when considered alongside the often self fulfilling nature of the excited anticipation that the play had leading it into its first night. Cynicism aside though, there was much in the play that justifies it’s demi standing ovation and its anticipated full house from here until mid-April.
Firstly, the main performances are wonderfully executed. Interestingly, the roles of Frankenstein and his Creature are shared between the two main actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, with them alternating each night in the main run (something which further justifies a repeat attendance, if further justification was needed). On the night I attended it was Miller who performed the role of the Creature and succeeded with, what in consideration of the character must be a slippery mastery, to evoke its progression from crawling inarticulate to emotive debater with the delicate avoidance of cliché or caricature.
Unfortunately, the opening twenty minutes which track this progress generally with the absence of any other characters or real dialogue, did at times remind one more of a hung-over adolescent’s bumpy trip into relative sobriety than the condensed ascendance of man. These opening scenes demanded rapid scene changes that were occasionally jarring, but over all this was nicely compensated for not only by the excellent physical drama of Miller, but also by the visually ambitious set that explored the broad capabilities of the National to astonishing and often breath taking affect.
As the play progresses it is clear that the script really exercises its strengths in the long encounters between the Creator and the Created which achieve a gripping energy through the sparring dialogue and conflicting attempts at self-justification that often descends into bilious frustration on both parts.
Despite the frequent violence and Gothicism of the production though, there are also times of releasing humour such as Cumberbatch asking the Creature “you’ve read Milton?” with an incredulity based more upon his opinion of Paradise Lost than his surprise at the Creature’s intellectual development. This is all part of a script that is frequently well wrought even if its handling of the plots urgency does fall occasionally flat, particularly in the hands of George Harris in the role of Frankenstein’s father.
By the end of the uninterrupted two hours, the grappling hands of the Creature’s existence have nearly succeeded in wringing the power from Frankenstein and their final departure from the stage achieves the crescendo for a play that represents in its (near) flawlessness the kind of theatre that makes the National deserving of its esteemed position.