Review: Frankenstein @ The National Theatre 23/04/2011

By Georgina Newman

THIS highly-anticipated production hosted by The National Theatre is a stunning feat of theatrical invention. Danny Boyle, of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting fame, directs Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 gothic novel, Frankenstein, and their intentions are clear: this is a piece of humanistic fiction.

Boyle’s idea to alternate, on each night, the two lead actors – Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein and the Creature – is a sound tactic, principally because this adaptation, unlike nearly all its cinematic counterparts, gives full voice to the Creature.

A far cry from the ubiquitous bolt-necked Boris Karloff interpretation, this is a more sophisticated exploration of Shelley’s original conception of Frankenstein and his ‘hideous progeny’. In order to experience the full force of the production, however, I suspect one really needs to return for a second viewing to see each actor play the other part.

Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature

The opening sequence is a magnificently choreographed, but visceral, physical performance, in which Miller as the Creature experiences in the space of 15 minutes the lifetime struggle from birth, to growth, to self-revelation.

The stage is empty except for a round, semi-diaphanous, membrane-like structure, gently lit so the audience is aware of a figure cocooned inside its womb, holding a rope/umbilical cord from the apparatus above. With a flash of light from the cluster of lightbulbs overhead, the thing inside the membrane starts to jerk about, disgorging itself through the sack walls and falling in a heap on the ground below.

The naked Creature, with his post-autopsy appearance, is just a fish out of water, a newborn. Sometimes taut as an acrobat, his movements are then subdued as he slumps down in agony. The Olivier stage, with its trampoline-like revolving base, is used in full as the Creature expresses feral confusion in a wordless performance. It is a formidable sight.

The Creature ventures out into the world and, in this world, he encounters universal hostility except in the kindly De Lacey, a blind old man, expertly played by Karl Johnson.

Miller imbues the Creature with a coy vulnerability as De Lacey teaches him of Original Sin. As he learns language he learns of man’s enlightenment, but with the shrewd curiosity of a child. The more he sees, the more he desires, and in adopting Frankenstein’s example, discovers “how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate” and “how to lie”.

De Lacey’s desire to introduce the Creature to his family backfires: they attack him, and in betrayal the Creature retaliates. Yet Dear and Boyle always assert the humanity in him, and Miller’s Creature successfully makes us support this assertion: we pity him in his savage deformity; he takes pains to make himself speak; and he teaches himself the nature of things around him.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein

It is when the Frankenstein clan enter that the glory starts to fade. Shelley conceived Frankenstein as a conflicted, hubristic man of intellect, whose underlying sensitivity ultimately affirms him as a tragic figure.

Nick Dear turns him into a cruel, reactionary megalomaniac, absorbed in his own plots and gravity, and the script markedly restrains him. As such, the story becomes that of a vulnerable child, abandoned in infancy, pleading for the love of his loveless Creator.

 Nevertheless, Cumberbatch excels in the role: he is earnest in his superiority and smug in his intellect, but he is, redeemably, repulsed by what his intellect compels itself to create, and we believe in him.

Unfortunately, Miller and Cumberbatch are supported on stage by a contingent of lesser talents. With the exception of Karl Johnson, only Naomie Harris as Elizabeth, Victor’s cousin/fiancée, blends humour and horror with ease. Her transition from trust to terror is secure.

In the context of the time, she is more or less a walking cliché: sweet, docile, demure. There is the capacity for strong indignation, but the script fails her. The force of her as a character is only ever realised when she acts beyond her innocence and confronts the Creature. Definitive though this courage may be, it is surmounted – perhaps inevitably – by the revenge of the Creature.

Naomie Harris as Elizabeth

The script is threadbare and sketchy, conspicuous in its neglect of the supporting characters. Although it is right to focus on the Creature and his Creator, the reality of so ruthless an approach renders the supporting cast mere passionless objects, to the point where the Creature’s acts of revenge against them reap little emotional response.

The part of Frankenstein’s father, unconvincingly played by George Harris, is emotionally absent and awkward. This may not be entirely the actor’s fault – Dear’s script furnishes the character with so few lines that one-dimensionality seems scarcely avoidable.

The strongest scenes are those in which Frankenstein and the Creature are alone, and the dialogue is downplayed by the sheer force of physicality the two leads exert in their confrontations with one another. Frankenstein, intent on killing the thing he’s created “before he kills me”, and the Creature, in search of answers from his Creator: “Why did you abandon me?”

The plight of the Creature is heartily felt, and Miller provokes a real sympathy for his character despite his horrific deeds. He skilfully constructs him as a half-Caliban, half-Heathcliff figure, reviled by others but chastised most by those who should realise that he was only ever a victim of circumstance.

Dear draws out the notion that the Creature is more than a mere prototype: he is an Adam. It is the rude element of the Creature that has been moulded into the semblance of humanity, while Frankenstein has been set apart from it. When the Creature casts his warning: “My mind is a furnace of revenge”, his language is that of a higher humanity than common men.

Frankenstein and the Creature

The final scene is eloquent in its lack of dialogue, with Frankenstein and the Creature alone in one last showdown at the North Pole.

Unlike Shelley, Dear lets Frankenstein live, and we are reminded that the apprehension of death is more excruciating than the experience of it.

The play, like the novel, presents Creature and Creator as different sides of the same personality, and the interchangeable casting of the two actors in the two main roles calls up the inextricable bond shared by Creature and Creator.

The two feed off each other to the point where the Creature declares: “He lives for my destruction; I live to lead him on.”

In feeding life back into Frankenstein, as he struggles with the cold, the Creature says honestly: “All I wanted was your love”, and despite Frankenstein’s continual rejection of the Creature, now utters the words: “Only you give me purpose.”

Frankenstein is unable to detach himself from the Creature after his initial rejection of him, ultimately feeling responsible for what he has created. The Creature has suffered such interminable rejection at the hands of Frankenstein that now, ironically, Frankenstein is compelled to pursue him. The Creature leads him on in this pursuit, and Frankenstein cannot disobey.

The humanity of the Creature marks an interesting deviation from other interpretations of Shelley’s Frankenstein.

The production is carried by the merits of its focus upon the Creature and his Creator, and the strength of performance which the two actors bring to their respective roles. Paradoxically however, it is this focus which creates the fundamental flaw, as all else is sacrificed in this endeavour.

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