Paul T Davies reviews the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller rotating the two lead roles being streamed online this week as part of National Theatre at Home.
National Theatre at Home.
It’s quite a Proustian experience watching a screening of a production you saw in the theatre. Within seconds of the National Theatre’s streaming of their 2011 production of Frankenstein, I was transported back to my visit there with a group of friends. It helps that the production is such a visual and aural experience, Mark Tildesley’s outstanding design, with thousands of light bulbs bringing the Monster to life among the many delights of Bruno Poet’s lighting design, utilizing every inch of the Olivier space, and a superb soundtrack by Underworld make this a sensual feast. It marked Danny Boyle’s return to the theatre as a director, and in the sequences involving industry and a train, we see premonitions of his 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. The main draw of the production, of course, was that the roles of The Monster and Victor Frankenstein were alternated between Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Here we have a unique opportunity to watch both performances, and, as I saw only Cumberbatch as the Monster, this is a welcome opportunity.
Of course, which actor plays which part “best” will depend on your personal taste, but it’s fascinating seeing how seamlessly the production wraps itself around each interpretation. Benedict Cumberbatch is a very physical creature, especially in the opening sequence, and as the Monster develops, his approach appears more cerebral, (this is the fastest educated Monster in literature), having more of a singular purpose, and this seeps a little into his performance as Victor Frankenstein, raising the tasty prospect that the creator projects his image on his creation. Jonny Lee Miller’s Monster is earthier, maybe not as physical, but, I felt, more alert and in tune with nature, he even ruts the grass he finds himself on, and drools and slobbers throughout, a creature more of the elements. He is also more aggressive perhaps as Victor, more driven by an emotional status. Both are fascinating to watch and centre a very strong production.
Karl Johnson is excellent as blind De Lacey, teacher of The Monster and Naomie Harris gives notice of excellent performances to follow in her performance as faithful, enquiring Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s bride to be. However, it’s not a perfect production, there is some miscasting in the minor roles, and the opening is so outstanding that very little that follows reaches its height, and the adaptation by Nick Dear cannot hide the sluggish elements of the source material, especially in its Christian tracts. There was also a missed opportunity to challenge the sexual politics of the piece a little more. However, there are many highlights, not least the central performances, and the staging makes this one of the National’s truly legendary productions. An excellent synergy of all the National has to offer, it, in our Covid times, reinforces the question of who are the Monsters? Or do we get the monsters we deserve?