Fangirl Kristen was lucky enough to see Danny Boyle’s filmed and televised live to theaters Frankenstein. She’s going to grace us with another smartly written take when she gets to see the role reversal on the next screening so we’ll have insight into both lead actors as monster and creator. For now, here is Kristen’s take on Benedict Cumberbatch as The Monster and Johnny Lee Miller as The Maker. Comments and questions are welcome.
Review: NT Live’s Frankenstein
By Kristen McHugh
Nearly every tale of science gone awry, owes a debt to Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein.
It transcends genre, because at its heart, it asks us to question our own ethics and humanity. The advent of the industrial revolution powered the cascade of discovery in the physical sciences and we’ve been wrestling with each step of progress ever since, or, perhaps it’s that we should have been, and haven’t. The numerous versions not only direct adaptations, but variations on the themes – look at Jurassic Park, or Splice, proves that these tropes stand the test of time. Yet, we rarely see, in any of the adaptations, what Mary Shelley expressly included in the original text: the Creature’s voice.
This Frankenstein, written by Nick Dear (Persuasion, Byron,) and directed by Danny Boyle, (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Days,) is currently enjoying a sold-out run at the National, in the Olivier Theatre, for a very good reason – it is Shelley’s story stripped to its core, and it has given the Creature his due.
The relationship between the maker and monster is once again front and center, with a bit of a twist: Each night, the lead actors alternate the roles of Victor and the Creature.
To have each role informed and tempered by how one plays the opposite role, brings an electric level of intimacy to the scenes shared by the actors portraying them.
Jonny Lee Miller, (Trainspotting, Dracula 2000, Dexter,) and Benedict Cumberbatch, (Sherlock, Atonement, Hawking,) are both powerful presences onstage, and while the NT Live presentation was initially meant to screen only one version in cinemas around the world, such is the demand that both versions are screening, (and selling out,) in many locations.
I must note: this is not a movie, or a play filmed in either an empty theatre or cavernous set. This is a play filmed with a live audience, and it feels like being part of that audience, albeit with much better vantage points than can be guaranteed by even the best seats in the house.
It’s a shockingly original staging, the minimal set, scenery, and props are used with maximum effect and minimal disruption of the action. The most obvious and versatile pieces are the intricate lighting rig above the stage, and the stage itself. The Olivier theatre has a five-story drum stage, and with the spareness of the sets, there’s nothing to distract the viewer from the performances and dialogue.
Without a doubt the tone and voice of the play is made abundantly clear from the first moments: The stage is empty, except for a framework covered in a tautly-stretched, translucent and organic-looking material draws the eye, a figure silhouetted within it. A hand twitches and pushes at the walls of this, “Womb.”
My first screening featured Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Victor.
What immediately struck me, is how painfully physical a role, the Creature is. Like watching someone overcome a catastrophic injury, or compressing a child’s development in a time-lapse video, the audience can’t help but empathize with its struggles, frustration and triumph as it tumbles onto the stage and learns to crawl, stand and walk.
That we first see Victor, amazed that his experiment has succeeded, yet utterly repulsed by the thing he has brought to life, panicking and then running from it, speaks to how much like a child he is, in his work. Miller’s ability to convey so much through his facial expressions, in a very short scene, makes me look forward to seeing what his Creature is like. One of the pitfalls of filming a play, is that the audience has no choice but to focus where the camera does. I would have liked fewer overhead shots of the Creature at this point, in favor of close-ups on its face. The dim lighting is evocative, punctuated by flashes of light from overhead, but while the mechanics of the, “Birth,” and development are stunning, how much more would we have felt, seeing those expressions?
We follow the Creature through its exploration of the world around it, its first frightening encounter with humans and the technology they’ve harnessed. The play is scored by Underworld, and these scenes in particular, feel like the music adds a layer of expression to the Creature’s experience, as he is still limited to wordless vocalizations.
Following Shelley’s narrative, he next encounters De Lacey, living with his son and daughter-in-law. Learning of music, literature, philosphy, particularly Milton and Plutarch, gone is the mindless brute, and instead, we have an erudite, if still immature, man. This is the Creature’s adolescence, and it is a lonely one. As De Lacey exhorts the Creature to meet his family, there is a sense of dread, because we know that tragedy is around the corner.
The Creature travels to Geneva, and in an act that may be accident, or reasoned brutality to force a confrontation, draws Victor into pursuing him. This confrontation is electric, as Miller’s Victor is by turns elated, icy, and blatantly cruel. Cumberbatch, careening from defiantly demonstrating his value to the father who abandoned him, to preening under the back-handed praise as Victor covers himself in glory, to pleading for a mate, makes the Creature so very human, that even though we know he’s done terrible things, we understand why. The tormented child becomes the tormentor, and the vicious circle closes like a noose around both of their necks.
Victor’s betrayals, of the Creature, of his family, of his fiancee, Elizabeth, are what define him. He conceals and ignores, creates and destroys without thinking beyond the moment, and his inability to accept responsibility for the consequences of his action and inaction, make him less a villain, than a coward. For all that, Miller inhabits the genius and fallibility in a way that is both frightening, and so very, very human.
The play is not perfect, and the one glaring flaw, for me, is that in compressing so much of Victor’s story, not only are we left with numerous questions about his motives, but the supporting cast seems to exist for only a few lines, each. Sometimes it works, sometimes it highlights that there is an entire world and history that we haven’t established, for Victor. It feels a little imbalanced, albeit in opposition to the usual slant on the story.
One of the strange touches Dear and Boyle have given us, is a wry and occasionally bawdy thread of humor. It works, giving the audience a chance to breathe in the midst of so much intensity.
If only the supporting cast weren’t so woefully underutilized, with the exception of Karl Johnson, (Hot Fuzz,) as De Lacey. George Harris (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,) is appropriately grave, as M. Frankenstein, and Naomie Harris, (28 Days Later, Pirates of The Caribbean 2 & 3,) delightfully feisty and winsome as Elizabeth, both of them forced to do a lot with very little dialogue. Elizabeth’s scene with the Creature, while horrifying in its denouement, is also a window on the might-have-been. Had Victor been able to think of either his bride, or his creation as valuable in their own rights, as worthy of his affection and attention, perhaps things would have ended very differently.
The final confrontation between Victor and the Creature is very much the Creature’s victory, if a hollow one. In Frankenstein’s subjugation to his need to pursue a vengeance he is incapable of completing, the Creature will never truly be alone, but he will never be loved, either.
I appreciate that Dear has given the play a more ambiguous ending than the novel. There are myriad questions within the story, questions that deserve to be asked of society, of science, and of ourselves when we look in the mirror every day. By not presenting pat answers, that ambiguity is more appropriate than any definitive resolution could be.
If you have the opportunity to see Frankenstein, go. It may be a flawed play, but the staging and performances are absolutely electrifying. I’ll have more to say about those performances once I’ve seen the reverse cast, of course.
(To locate cinemas in the US that are screening NT Live productions, visit ntlive.com)