What does it take to be human? Is it the ability to love or to lie? That’s the central question posed in Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, Frankenstein.
In what has become one of the years most sought after tickets, director Danny Boyle returns to the theatre but in doing so pulls out of the bag a visually stunning epic diorama that seems almost made for the big screen.
Abandoned by his creator, the creature takes his first tentative steps into the world, learning about humanity; love, fear and hate shape his education and, rejected and isolated by the world, he sets out to find Victor Frankenstein, the only man who can build a bride for the creature. Humanity isn’t that straightforward, though, and love comes at a cost to both the creature and also to Victor.
Dear’s script has apparently gone through several revisions and, at times, it still seems a work in progress. Structure and dialogue occasionally seem strained, the passage of time seems muddled and supporting characters are little more than primitive thumb sketches. Normally such problems would sink a production but the combination of Boyle’s direction, visually and technically brilliant staging and two outstanding central performances redeem the evening.
Alternating in the roles of Victor and the creature, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have undertaken a mammoth task. Mastering one role would be a challenge but the doubling adds an extra dimension.
For this performance we get Cumberbatch as the scientist and Miller as the creature. Miller’s tormented creature is a marvellous piece of work. Opening the show with a physical tour de-force, the creature may have no lines in this opening 15-minute scene but Miller’s highly detailed performance speaks volumes as the creature explores this strange new world.
As he matures so does his language but always with the hint of animalistic struggle. Incredibly moving and conversely also incredibly human. As the creature finally takes fearsome retribution on his creator, his assertion that he has realised he has become man through his ability to lie is both poignant and chilling.
On the other side of the equation we have Benedict Cumberbatch’s Victor Frankenstein. Here is a man that, in his clinical devotion to learning and science, is somehow less emotionally human than his abhorrent creation. Despite being engaged Victor seems incapable of love. Cumberbatch plays Frankenstein with a cold detachment and it’s a portrayal that works well. We never get to like Frankenstein but we get an insight of a man tormented by his inner conflict, trying to come to terms with his desire to drive science forward to help mankind while fearing the consequences of his actions. Here is a man who doesn’t want to play God and is driven nearly insane by the ramifications when he does.
Danny Boyle’s direction sensibly focuses on the two central protagonists, other characters removed to the sidelines. In some ways this does leave a sense of disappointment, wanting to know more about the influences that drive Victor’s decisions but, conversely, it does allow a deeper engagement with Frankenstein and the Creature.
Boyle’s cinema background is apparent, scenes flowing with fluidity and pace throughout, the eye being drawn to corners of the vast Olivier stage as if in movie close up. This filmic feel is aided by strong visual elements, the production making full use of technical abilities of the National Theatre. Mark Tildesley’s design uses nearly every theatrical trick in the book while Bruno Poet’s lighting adds an almost sculptural element to the piece.
The script may be flawed but, overall, this is a highly accomplaished piece showcasing director, design team and lead actors at the top of their game.
Photo: Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor, Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature. Photo by Catherine Ashmore