NT Encore: Frankenstein

Ahead of FACT’s re-showing of Danny Boyle’s take on Frankenstein, Alison Cornmell recalls an electrifying performance from Benedict Cumberbatch…

Last year, for the first time ever, National Theatre Live broadcast two separate performances of Frankenstein. Throughout the run, actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternated between the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. The play and the performances were critically acclaimed and next week FACT is showing the performances again.

The play, written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, is based on the novel by Mary Shelley. Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written, it is a story that has had a considerable influence across literature and popular culture and spawned a complete genre of horror stories and films. Written nearly 200 years, ago it continues to live and resonate, its underlying themes universal in their humanity.

Today, the Creature has a popular, mainstream characterisation – largely thanks to its Hammer Horror incarnation – of a tall male figure with a bolted neck and menacing groan. However, the Oscar-winning Danny Boyle returns to Shelly’s original text and humanizes the creature, giving him a voice that has rarely been heard before. In addition to a voice he is given character, thoughts and intellect, and as his speech improves and his intelligence grows during the play, the lines begin to blur between what is human and what isn’t.

With Cumberbatch and Miller alternating roles, this distinction begins to blur even further. When Johnny Lee Miller plays Victor, you see mannerisms and speech patterns from the creature bleed into Victor’s, and the role of master and slave, creator and created, father and son begin to interchange. Their bond becomes so strong by the end of the play that ultimately neither can exist without the other.

What Danny Boyle does so well is explore the characters of Victor and the Creature without compromise. Our sympathies and allegiances are pulled between the two and you realize there is no clear distinction between what is good and what is evil. The complicated nature of their relationship and their roles within it also lead you to think about Love – what love is, what it feels like, how you show it and most importantly who can feel it. The creature’s transition between monster and human is shown in his instinctual need for love, and ultimately revenge.

Life is also a theme that Danny Boyle explores, what it is and who creates it. Frankenstein chooses to create life with electricity. Danny Boyle explains that before Frankenstein was written it was gods and deities who created life but it is electricity that breaths life into Frankenstein’s creature. Writing in an age of discovery, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is endowed with wisdom. Boyle recognises and uses this, Frankenstein’s wife pointing out that he could have created life with her, but instead his pride lead him to creating it through science and experiment.

Originally seeing the play performed live last year was a pleasure, and I watched the repeated performance recently. For me, Benedict Cumberbatch was the stand out performer. He has the gravitas to play the role of Frankenstein, but brings a measure of ambiguity to both sides of the coin, leading you to question at every turn the moral implications in creator and created. Jonny Lee Miller meanwhile is arguably at his best as the Creature (pictured), giving the character a childlike quality and innocence. Having the actors alternate between roles was something of a masterstroke from Boyle, highlighting beautifully the big themes and issues at play in Mary Shelley’s still relevant gothic masterpiece.

Alison Cornmell

NT Encore Frankenstein next screens Tuesday, 3rd July @ FACT

Posted on 27/06/2012 by thedoublenegative