Trip to London yesterday for some culture, in the form of a preview of the new production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as some combination of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein.
First, some caveats: I don’t go to the theatre that often, the show is still in previews for another week (they have apparently chopped quite a bit out since the first previews and will undoubtedly tweak it further), and I haven’t read the novel. All that aside, it was entertaining enough but not as good as I hoped. By the way I’m going to spoil the hell out of it so I would advise not reading any further if you plan to go and see it.
There’s a creepy organic womb sitting on the stage from the start, with a body visible inside it, writhing around as the audience files in, which bursts open at the start for the Creature to be born. As it was a preview, it was a mystery as to which actor would be taking which role, and after a few seconds I figure out that the actor who is convulsing around the stage is Jonny Lee Miller and also that he is stark bollock naked. The Creture proceeds to jerk and writhe around for a good few minutes, while he works out how arms and legs work and what the hell is going on, and I confess I found it a bit silly.
Then the steampunk train comes on, complete with cheery peasants in goggles, and they do a dance. I think this is supposed to represet the industrial revolution.
After a couple of scenes to establish that the Creature is hideous and scares everyone, he finds some trousers and we get on with things, and it all gets better. The slow burn of the opening and the Creature’s transformation into a speaking, rational being builds up to his first confrontation with Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s joy at seeing what his creation has become is all rather good. It’s a shame that Frankenstein has been almost entirely off-stage for the first third of the production, because I don’t think the role ever really recovers from being overshadowed by the Creature at the start. We progress through Frankenstein making a bride, coming home to be married and widowed, and then the final denouement in the arctic.
It’s all enjoyable enough, but somehow a bit lacking.The production is spectacular, with a grid of thousands of lightbulbs used to good effect, and nice use of the rotating stage parts, but I was expecting it to be technically great. I never got much a sense of time and place, nor does it play up the gothic horror, and the Creature may be hideous up close but from halfway up the theatre all you can see are some stiches on Miller’s head. (Which got me wondering how exactly they do it: has Miller shaved his head and wears a wig to be Frankenstein, while Cumberbatch keeps his natural hair for Frankenstein and puts on a bald cap to be the Creature?)
In the end it is all about Frankenstein and the Creature, who put in good performances but can’t make me excited about the play. And while both actors were excellent, the role-swapping gimmick just leaves wonder if they wouldn’t have been more interesting the other way round – Frankenstein is cold and arrogant and convinced of his own genius, and I’ve already seen Cumberbatch do that on screen. The Guardian asks, “The challenge for the audience, perhaps, is the question of which character we should feel more kindly towards. Maker or murderer? Father or son?” Despite the Creature’s monstrous nature, it’s never really a question in this production – it is the Creature’s show.