By John Lombard
National Theatre Live
Streaming until 7 May
Review by John Lombard
Creator and creation are two sides of the same coin in director Danny Boyle’s chilling Frankenstein, with the obsessed doctor and pitiful creature alternating roles between performances.
The National Theatre Live is streaming both productions, offering both Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature. Each version offers something unique, and together the plays are a meditation on the circle of karma that means Frankenstein can be either a mad scientist or a monster.
Crucially, this adaptation by Nick Deer starts with the birth of the creature, and follows it as it discovers fire, food and pain. This approach earns full sympathy for the creature before it begins to dabble in petulant murder, dramatising the tragic waste of this abandoned child.
Deer also tweaks Victor Frankenstein. In Mary Shelley’s novel he is a neurotic that faints at the sight of his creature brought to life, but here Victor is fierce enough to quail the creature with a masterful command.
Great staging has an overwhelming apparatus of lights that can twinkle like stars or blaze with the fire of Prometheus, a fire-belching steampunk train, and sparse sets that evoke Gothic desolation.
Jonny Lee Miller is the more traditional and satisfying of the two creatures, with a halting performance that suggests restrained violence. Cumberbatch’s bug-like creature is alien and revolting, but more pitiful than formidable.
Cumberbatch meanwhile is the more satisfying scientist, sensitive and compassionate but poisoned by grandiose pride, and often needs to swallow his fear to stall the monster. Miller by contrast is more callous and demonic in the role, which heightens the conflict between man and monster but at the cost of sympathy for the misguided genius.
Victor’s family are his passive foils, with Naomie Harris as love interest Elizabeth and George Harris as his father both appropriately haunted, but lacking the splash of humour and vitality necessary to humanise their characters.
The tragedy of this Frankenstein is that the characters have the potential to complete each other: Victor could create life the traditional way through Elizabeth, or find an intellectual equal in the creature.