Re:View – ‘Frankenstein’
Danny Boyle has recognised a key element in the Frankenstein myth in his dazzling new production at the National Theatre – it’s the only horror novel that has always appealed to women. In the pursuit of science, the Baron can’t relate to anything as natural as love and procreation, ultimately proving himself less human than the monster who wants to understand humanity.
Elizabeth offers Victor unconditional love, but Victor displays a level of autism in his inability to accept her, telling her that there’ll be time to touch her later after he’s killed the monster. It seems appropriate, then, that heartthrobs Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller should be alternating roles as Victor and creature, although at the performance I saw, Cumberbatch made the creature so much his own and Miller was so emotionally frozen that it’s hard to imagine how it works in reverse.
The spare, impressionistic production design is genuinely astonishing, from the heavens of lightning that bring about life, to the elemental appearances of water, earth and fire. The creature is athletic, visceral, dangerous, and hurls himself naked around the great wheel of the set in a performance of real bravery.
Nick Dear’s script starts at a surprising point – as the audience assemble, the monster is already being born. The first fifteen minutes are silent, as we find ourselves present at the flashpoint of life. The play takes its cue from the key segments of Shelley’s novel that follow the Promethean journey, as the creature is taught by the blind man to appreciate lofty concepts, while only being presented with man’s base instincts, through to his request for a mate, his pursuit of his maker and their eventual reunion in polar wasteland.
But the journey is not without problems; rhubarbing peasant chat of the ‘Blimey, there’s a right old to-do going on over at Carlsbad’-type tends to conjure memories of Hammer films and even ‘Carry On Screaming’. Colourblind casting works as long as the tale is viewed as a fable, but within the context of the actual play it’s trickier. Victor’s father and fiance are both black and the former has a Caribbean accent. The second half hour (it’s an intermission-free two hours) drags. And there’s Elizabeth’s wedding night, which always felt like Victorian melodrama, and still falls short of its true horrific impact.
‘Frankenstein’ has always faced structural problems, and has a central hero who is ultimately less complex than his creation, but Boyle and Dear clearly show that the two leads are two halves of one man, and couple the concept with some genuine thrills and a script that catches the book’s essence in shortform, as when Elizabeth says ‘So you think women are inferior?’ and Victor simply replies ‘Yes’ as if the answer was obvious.
‘Frankenstein’ is in preview at the National Theatre, London SE1 from Feb 5. As part of National Theatre Live the production will be broadcast live to cinemas in the UK and around the world on March 17.