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Frankenstein: A Re-Review * 23 June 2012

Frankenstein Review 1

A riot of performance, staging, music and sound, Danny Boyle's National Theatre production of Frankenstein deserves all the plaudits and awards it has received since its debut at The Olivier in London over a year ago. The play holds a special place in our hearts on a personal level.  As well as a review, this article also contains an examination and comparison of the original stage performance and the NT Live encore recording of the play. Please note we'll be talking some spoilers too.

Privately, we at Sherlockology often cite Frankenstein as one of the true catalysts for our creation. On April 9 2011, nearly two months before we started work on the social accounts and website, two of us attended a live performance of the play at The Olivier, where we saw Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and Jonny Lee Miller as The Creature. The play burnt itself into our subconscious from then on, and while it was sold out for the remainder of the theatre run, we were able to attend an encore screening of the alternate casting at the BFI IMAX soon afterwards. It's only been until now, with the worldwide NT Live encore screenings in June 2012 that we've had a legitimate reason to write on the play, even while we have long held our opinions and thoughts on it.

Frankenstein Review 2

Frankenstein at the National Theatre, April 9 2011. Jonny Lee Miller inside the incubator on stage before the performance.

Frankenstein is a story of duality. The creator and the created, vying with each other in a battle of wits while both facing the misunderstanding, even hatred, of others around them. These themes are expressed clearly through the play's single greatest conceit - the nightly reversal of the two lead actors in the roles. Effectively learning their dialogue twice, and both giving different portrayals of the characters in their performances, it is little wonder that Cumberbatch and Miller have been the recipients of numerous awards, not least the shared 2012 Olivier Award for Best Actor. The major benefit of the rotating casting is a subtle tonal shift in the different versions, which in turn causes a different examination of thematic elements of the narrative.

As The Creature, Benedict Cumberbatch is a tall, gangly and powerful presence on the stage. Initially a loping mass of limbs, he gradually develops a semblance of grace as the play goes on, his elegance feeding into his developing eloquence with language and inflection, giving him a stronger sense of awareness. When the human beings around him begin to wrong him however, he becomes a genuine physical threat, especially when faced with his creator Victor Frankenstein. As Victor, Jonny Lee Miller is more diminutive against his creation, and far more bombastic. He gives the sense of being physically overwhelmed by his far taller opponent, and that gives the impression of a man who has quite literally created something he cannot control. Jonny also brings over elements from his version of The Creature quite explicitly, including awkward standing body language and a facial tic that manifests at times of stress. In this version, thanks to Benedict's remarkably articulate delivery it is perhaps slightly more difficult to sympathise with The Creature, due to the sense that there is a conscious decision by him to feed off and thus inflict pain on those around him, while Victor more closely skirts the edges of being a misguided victim of his own genius.

Frankenstein Review 3

In contrast, Miller's version of The Creature is more child-like in manner, coming across like a sentient, beaten dog that gradually becomes more confident. Arguably, his vulnerability engenders our sympathy more than Cumberbatch's portrayal, but he is also far more repellent - a drooling, spitting, stumbling, bellowing Magwitch-like ball of growing rage that finally explodes against his more dominating creator. In Benedict's version of Victor, Frankenstein is guilty of vanity and extreme hubris, giving the sense of a man so obsessed with whether he can perform this unnatural act of creation, he never stops to think whether he should have in the first place until it is too late. He conveys a sense of supreme arrogance, focused purely on the goal but never the consequences that will inevitably arise from his intentions, which in turn lends a tint of near insanity. There are fleeting moments which you could argue place his performance close to that of Sherlock Holmes, but there can be no mistaking Victor goes far darker than Sherlock ever does in his actions. When he confronts Frankenstein's bride Elizabeth near the close, Miller lends a genuine sense of reluctance to his final horrific actions, compared to Cumberbatch's seemingly malicious intent for revenge. As a result, The Creature seems far more tragic in contrast to his overbearing master, conditioned into his behaviour by the actions of those around him.

Thanks to these differences, we find it impossible to recommend one version over the other, not least as we found each member of the Team has split preferences. Both versions offer distinct differences that, while not altering the narrative, do change the tone of the play considerably at times. But by the close of either version, we are left in no doubt that this is a tragedy, the creator and his creation now locked in a never ending circle of pursuit thanks to their horrendous actions.

Frankenstein Review 4

What is common to both versions however is the simply astonishing staging and production design. Making full use of The Oliver Theatre's five storey tall rotating Drum Revolve, pushing it to near maximum load, the rises and falls of the sets coupled with the spectacular overhead lighting rig give the entire production a fever-like dream quality, allowing moments of huge beauty but also drama and threat. At times minimalist, at others hugely impactful - and in the case of the train arrival at the start, quite literally in your face - the set design is a crucial part of the production, giving a sense of location and ambience that very few productions have been able to match before or since.  In addition, the evocative, impressionistic soundtrack by Underworld is a fantastic element, lending moments of extreme beauty and ominous, building terror. The Creature's experience of his first sunrise is the standout moment of the entire score, a joyful interlude before all that is to come.

If there is any one criticism we have to lay against the play, it's the underwriting of the other members of the cast. All try valiantly - with Karl Johnson as the blind De Lacey making a particularly strong impact - but the two central performances are so dominating to the piece the other roles suffer somewhat.

It's worth noting there are some differences between seeing the play performed live on stage and the NT Live recordings that quite significantly alter the tone of some scenes. Firstly, and perhaps understandably, the entire opening of the play is truncated. On entering the theatre, the audience had fifteen minutes to assemble and become seated, during which that odd, gong shaped skin rotated on the central drum of the stage. All the while, at regular intervals, a member of the company would ring the bell suspended above the central aisle, the cord hanging down so a member of the audience could ring it, if they wished. Fed through the sound system of the theatre, it would emit a thunderous, jump inducing clang. Slowly, you began to notice that that skin covered incubator on the stage contained a human form, and it gently began to move, until the doors to the foyer were closed and The Creature inside burst forth and collapsed onto the stage, stark naked.  The actor would then perform everything you see afterwards, from his encounters with industry workers and people out on the land, until his arrival at the farm homestead, in that state of undress - save for the brown cloak.

The effect was visceral, electrifying and almost bewildering, the audience confronted and quietened by what they were seeing before them. For purposes of the live broadcast, and presumably to prevent any complaints from around the world, the two actors performed the recorded version wearing what can only be described as a large nappy. While perfectly understandable, the effect from watching the recorded version after such a time is one of a sanitised production, and it lacks a huge degree of power. There are a couple of other instances of 'cuts' for the recording, including a comedic moment when The Creature discovers how to relieve himself while squatting in the grass, the female Creature appears completely naked during the scene in Victor's laboratory, and a fair more significant moment that sees the attack on Frankenstein's wife abridged. In the stage version, The Creature's rape of Elizabeth is far more prolonged, until Victor bursts in to find them in the act. But importantly, more is made of the moment as he collapses to the floor in inaction and watches as his new wife imploringly reaches out her hand to him for help, transfixed by the act he has never managed to achieve with her. It seemed to go on forever, before The Creature noisily snapped Elizabeth's neck with a crack that made the entire audience gasp in shock.

Regardless of these omissions, the National Theatre Live recording of the play retains its single greatest asset - those two astonishing central performances. As we've already said, we find it impossible to recommend one over the other, as in the end it will come down to a personal preference. With both, you get two spins on the same material, a true glimpse at the possibility of interpretation by an actor of the same character. It remains unmissable, and will no doubt be talked about in theatrical circles for a very long time to come - after all, we still are a year after its original debut. If you ever get the chance to see either recording of this remarkable play, we urge you go as an absolute priority.