National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein, adapted by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, gained attention at the time for a gimmick that ought, really, to be standard practice in the performance of this play. Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, much-memed, mistreated, and misunderstood by the pop culture conception of its monster, is, as any A-level English student will tell you, all about duality. Sharing the role of doctor and creature is a bold ask of any actor – but the novel seems to demand it.
For anyone looking to enjoy this week’s offering of the National Theatre at Home initiative, this production warrants a double-watch. Both Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Jonny Lee Miller’s turns as the creature have been made available on Youtube for one week as of 1st May 2020—time enough to decide who makes the better Victor, and time enough for me to figure out my true feelings on this production, which … last night … left me wary.
As a self-confessed Mary Shelley obsessive, I love to press Frankenstein onto friends with too much time on their hands. This novel practically invented the genre of science-fiction, features a celebrity-studded conception story (Lord Byron, Switzerland, and a ghost story competition gone awry, and was written by an eighteen-year-old woman on a scandalous, madcap journey through Europe. Danny Boyle had his work cut out to win my admiration. (Not, I admit, that this is likely his primary consideration when he directs.)
Boyle, who famously went on to orchestrate the 2012 Olympics’ Opening Ceremony, does not do things by halves. He has an unparalleled eye for cohesive set design and overarching aesthetic synthesis, and Frankenstein is no exception. The use of red light filtered through fabric as if through a membrane locates us in a womb-like chamber on the sparsely furnished stage. This is a text all about creation, and Boyle reminds us of this with both the bloody mist of a pregnancy and the spare, scientific minimalism of a laboratory.
We get close. In all that space, sounds echo – the footsteps that carry the repulsed Victor away from his despised creation are loud, damning, flat. The creature’s cries of anguish cut through the air as he traverses the mountains, moors, hills, but without the corresponding scenery to soak up the sound. I found myself disappointed by the flashier scenes; the haze of smoke and metallic clangs that accompany the arrival of a train on stage is an impressive piece of stagecraft, but entirely unnecessary. The play is so powerful in moments of physical vulnerability and isolation — the creature alone on stage, howling, hitting himself, distraught; the metres of distance between Elizabeth and Victor as she asks her fiancé why he avoids her – that crowded scenes feel unnerving and out of place. Even though textually justified, as in the scene where a group gathers to search for Victor’s missing brother, I felt knocked out of place by a sense of choreographic inconsistency.
Reviewing the first released performance, with Cumberbatch as the creature, I found Miller’s Victor gauche and unreadable – so, a true-to-form version of the character, clearly inspired by a fidelity to the original text. Cumberbatch demonstrated a consistent and demanding attention to his physical comportment, and fluently expressed the mercurial creature’s emotional vacillation. I greatly appreciated Naomie Harris’ performance as Elizabeth; a character who might easily come across as spineless or insubstantial gained a grace and defiance in such moments as a confrontation with her apathetic fiancé.
And yet. I couldn’t help but feel that this production reduced a complex text to little more than a series of uninterrogated events, lacking the force of the distress that wails through the novel. Maybe it’s the Frankenstein curse: whether you’re painting your monster green or staging a more dignified National Theatre production, you’ll never quite come close to the experience of the original. Or maybe I just need to give it another chance and watch the roles swap over tonight.
Image credit: National Theatre, 2011