Frankenstein, National Theatre

On Thursday afternoon I was fortunate to see ‘Frankenstein’ at the National Theatre.  In a performance being filmed for transmission in cinemas, Jonny Lee Miller played the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch, his creator.

Waiting for it to start

In an uninterrupted two hours, I was transfixed by the spectacle.  The Creature’s first appearance was astonishing and visceral, squeezing himself out of a membrane stretched across a frame that had been circulating on the revolve stage all the time the audience had been finding their seats.

During the first several minutes of the performance we then watched as the Creature tried to stand up.  A show of painful physical effort, it was as if we were watching the ascent of man dramatised over a few moments.

‘Theatrical’ in all the best ways, it was a heartbreaking retelling of the story we all think we know.  Filled with symbolism and metaphors that could keep a Jungian deconstructing it for days, I found it a deeply moving experience, and took a few moments on the outside terrace of the NT overlooking the river to properly compose myself afterwards.

Throughout I was struck by the pain and longing, the pure humanity of the Creature and the cold, calculating cowardice of Frankenstein.

In alternate performances the two actors swap roles, echoing the interlocked nature of the two characters.  The Creature would have been nothing without Frankenstein, but once he was brought to life by the power of science, symbolised by a sudden, harsh  illumination of the stage by the raft of light bulbs hanging above, he was his nemesis too.  Once the Creature had tracked down Frankenstein the two were locked together forever; two sides of the one thing.

There were thoughtful moments about the nature of longing and loss.  The Creature wanted a companion like himself, someone who would not be repelled by his appearance; he wanted Frankenstein to make him a woman, and that longing was his sole motivation.  It was only after the scientist went back on his word that the Creature became bent on vengeance: he had learnt the ways of man; to lie, deceive and kill.

In contrast, Frankenstein virtually ignored his fiancée, and had no apparent interest in any partnership with her.  The only real interest that we glimpsed was a creepy fascination for the way her elbow bent and the turn of her hand, suggesting a cool appraisal of her as a mechanical being.  Instead of wanting to make the children that she longed for, and to allow Nature to take its course, his desire was to create life through the violence of science; a need to vanquish death rather than nurture life.

At the end of the play, locked in perpetual running and pursuit in a frozen landscape, Frankenstein lay helpless on the stage,  echoing the helplessness of  the Creature in the opening scenes; it was a bleak tableau, showing the destructive, yet inescapable, connection between the two of them.

If I were to be critical, I would say that the supporting cast weren’t great and some of the dialogue is awful, but I forgive it any faults because the central performances were extraordinary and the staging, lighting and music were shocking and brilliant.

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5 Comments

  1. margaret nickels

     /  March 19, 2011

    And it is as wonderful watched as the filmed version .I share many of your views however especially the script!

    Reply
  2. Margot Nickels

     /  March 19, 2011

    Totally agree with literally everything you said, cannot wait to see it in the theatre!

    Reply
  3. Katie

     /  November 15, 2011

    I saw this live , but I saw it with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller was Victor Frankenstien. I was blown away by the emotions Cumberbatch showed as the creature, that it genuinely brought a tear to my eye and I wanted to get off my seat and run and hug him.
    JLM was a decent Victor too.

    Money well spent, I will cherise the memory of it forever.
    I am glad to see that the swapped roles were equally enjoyed. x

    Reply
    • You’ve confirmed what I’d read elsewhere that both actors bring great emotion and pathos to the roles whichever way about they performed. It was one of my theatrical highlights of the year.

      Reply

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