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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Olivier Theatre   Spring 2011

Hollywood and Hammer Films may have turned Mary Shelley's classic into a simple horror story, but playwright Nick Dear has moved it back toward a rumination on what it means to be human.

And if the philosophising never gets terribly deep, it does provide a solid basis for a spectacular production by Danny Boyle (design by Mark Tildesley) and two bravura performances by its stars.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are alternating as creature and creator - the NT programme and website will tell you who's who each night - and I saw Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein.

(The general consensus among those who have seen it twice is that both are brilliant, in differing ways, with Miller a little more impressive as the Creature while Cumberbatch has a slight edge as Victor.)

Nick Dear violates all our expectations by skipping over the preliminaries  of Victor's experiments and beginning with the birth of the Creature, imagined here as an actual birth, a bursting out of an artificial womb.

Miller's naked newborn flops onto the ground and then, in fifteen minutes without a coherent word, undergoes a speeded-up infancy, mastering his muscles, finding his limbs, discovering the joy of crawling and then standing erect.

Indeed, for a long time the stage belongs to the Creature, with Victor making a very brief appearance in the first scene and then not reappearing until almost halfway through the two-hour dramatisation.

We watch the Creature meet his first humans, who either attack him or run away in horror (a plot requirement that is less convincing than it should be because Miller is not made up to be all that ugly or horrifying), until he encounters the blind man who befriends him and teaches him to speak and then read, so that he is soon quoting Milton at length and discoursing on why he identifies more with Satan than Adam.

He seeks out his creator (who, in another plot gap, doesn't seem to have wondered what became of him all these years) to demand a mate. At first caught up in the challenge, Victor then backs down, leading the Creature to take revenge and Victor to then chase him across the globe.

Partly because the play gives him the first hour, and partly because Jonny Lee Miller creates a character of intelligence and feeling, it is the Creature you will sympathise with, which supports the playwright's central irony that he is more human and more humane than the cold, emotionally disconnected Victor.

And it may be because the deck is so stacked against him or because he is a more intelligent than emotional actor that Cumberbatch can show us Victor's failings but not make us feel his tragedy.

If, as I noted, some have thought him better in that role than Miller, the fault must lie in the writing or direction. In any case, while you will understand that Victor's commitment to science and his inclination toward a God complex have cost him his humanity, you are not likely to care as much as you do for the Creature's pains.

Elsewhere, the writing does not always escape bathos, with someone actually saying to Victor 'You have meddled with the natural order because you worship the gods of electricity and gas,' and except for Karl Johnson's typically solid performance as the blind man, no one else in the cast really registers.

It is much to the credit of director and designer that a spectacular production that utilises all the Oliver's resources, including the once-a-decade airing of the two-level revolve, does not swamp the human story, even if it is the non-human's story that is really at the centre.

Gerald Berkowitz

(The National Theatre broadcast both versions of the play in its NT Live series and, with the 2020 closing of theatres, made them available on YouTube. We took that opportunity to review the alternate casting HERE)

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Review of Frankenstein - National Theatre 2011

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