I don’t think reviews of live theatre will be commonplace here, particularly since I don’t often go to plays, but then this is only half a play. You see, when Danny Boyle put on a stage production of Frankenstein, newly-adapted by Nick Dear, it only ran for a few weeks, and only at the National Theatre in London. Would that I could have gone to see it live. Luckily, two performances were filmed and broadcast to cinemas around the world. This happened last year, but I was tied up and unable to go. Thankfully, National Theatre Live decided to present the play on the big screen once more. It’s a play, but it’s filmed and seen on the big screen, and while these kinds of events are now commonplace, it’s the first time I’ve been to one. Well, in this case I saw it twice.
You see, Danny Boyle cast two great actors to play Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch took the roles, but they did something really special. Each night they would swap parts, each taking a turn playing the other character. Quite the clever ploy considering I got two tickets and saw the same play twice in the space of a week. I suppose I could have just chosen one or the other, but part of the fun was to see how each actor would approach the roles. It’s a sight worth seeing, though I do think one version comes out better than another.
Nick Dear’s adaptation of the novel takes things back to the source. So many stage productions and film versions have effectively made Dr. Frankenstein an anti-hero with the Creature nothing more than a monster. This is at odds with the heart of the novel, in which the Creature learns and can carry complex conversations. The Creature of the novel is a tormented and sad man, cast out by humanity and the person who created him. So much about the importance and complexity of what it is to be human rests in the journey of the Creature and this play not only brings that back, but makes it the main focus.
Where Danny Boyle’s direction comes in is the amazing staging. It’s all very impressive on a technical level, but he also finds a unique way to track the growth of the creature in that staging. For example, the play begins with a ten-minute, wordless sequence in which the Creature is born from a machine and very slowly learns how to use his muscles. He flops around on the floor, crawls around, tries to stand and walk and run. It’s amazing to watch and an extremely effective way of endearing the character to the audience. As a result, the Creature isn’t a monster so much as a sad product of a monstrous existence.
Once the story kicks in, it’s full of depth, emotion, laughter and chills. Extremely effective overall. But the real highlight is the acting. Primarily from Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. Each actor brings a bit of a different style to the characters. Cumberbatch seemed to go full method with his Creature, while Miller brought a bit more broad theatricality. Usually I might prefer the method performance, but considering this was a play, the theatricality of Miller’s Creature actually worked better. He played to the audience more and thus connected better. I was far more emotionally involved in the plight of Miller’s Creature than Cumberbatch’s, though they were both great. It also helps matters than Cumberbatch plays the cold Victor Frankenstein better, bringing in hints of his fantastic Sherlock Holmes performance from TV.
I’m not sure if Boyle’s Frankenstein will be shown again in theatres, but hopefully it gets a Blu-ray release with both performances. I would gladly pick it up and watch it. It’s a production so good I could actually see it taking over from the 1931 James Whale film as the definitive adaptation of the story in my mind.