A collection of 3,500 light bulbs hang above the audience, flashing all at once, as electronic static buzzes persistently. A spherical, beige screen – veiny, alien, womb-like – stands alone on the stage, until suddenly a hand bursts through it. Even for a virtual viewer, there is a sensory overload of light and sound as the Creature falls hard on the floor. It convulses and squirms, wet and barely conscious, twitching like a fish out of water. In silence, we watch it attempt to move, adjusting to its limbs as if paralysed. It attempts to speak, adjusting to the tongue in its mouth, expressing only cries and groans. The camera provides us a close-up view of its grotesque appearance, of huge gaping wounds poorly sewn together, still bloodied from birth, struggling to grasp its existence.
Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein is jarring, heart-breaking, and distinctly original. Opening the production with the Creature’s birth, the narrative is presented through his perspective, rather than Victor’s. We witness his first experiences of nature, of joy and laughter, and of fear and pain. Most powerfully, we witness his first interaction with society, when a huge steam train powers through the centre of the stage to a heavy, industrial beat, full of chaotic workers clouded in steam and sparks. It is here the Creature faces his first instance of prejudice and abuse.
Boyle’s production is famously unique for alternating his leading actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, between the characters of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein, to create an exciting parallel between creator and creation, man and monster. As the virtual audience’s first Creature, Cumberbatch is simply breath-taking. He expresses himself predominantly through his struggling body, touching and feeling, performing his Creature with a disturbing yet impressive physicality. By contrast, Jonny Lee Miller is more verbally expressive, screaming as he tears through the womb, shouting as he burns down the DeLacey house, and howling for the death of his female counterpart. His facial expressions are more exaggerated, and better appreciated by an online viewer, whereas Cumberbatch’s physicality was likely more striking to an in-theatre audience.
However, I much preferred Miller as Victor Frankenstein. The character which Boyle makes is borderline impossible to empathise with. Narcissistic, proud, emotionally void, this Frankenstein is incapable of loving at all. Despite playing Sherlock Holmes in Elementary, Miller was able to distance himself from the ‘troubled-genius’ role, unlike Cumberbatch whose Victor is undoubtedly haunted by his Sherlock, resembling the character in physical and verbal mannerisms. Miller is emotionally disconnected but oddly charismatic, his raspy voice adding an essential aggression and danger to the scientist. In his tailcoat, he resembles Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog – emblematic of the Romantic sublime – while Cumberbatch looks like he’s still on the BBC set.
The line between the two characters and actors is especially blurred in the final Arctic scene. The Creature stands tall and confident, speaks eloquently without impediment, wears a tailcoat and suit, and visually dominates the scene. Victor, however, is writhing on the floor in his furs, presumably freezing to death, eating meat off the floor like an animal. In this painfully visual parallel, Boyle emphasises the cyclical dynamic between humanity and monstrosity, while cleverly setting up for the next night’s performance in which the actors literally swap.
Aside from its protagonists, Boyle’s production heightens Frankenstein’s ‘womb envy’ through its unique extension of the female presence. Elizabeth, performed by Naomie Harris, is the definition of empathy: inquisitive, understanding, and patient, an original dialogue between her and the Creature shows her boundless compassion. Harris presents the maternal love that Victor fundamentally lacks, and it is impossible not to adore her, or cry for her brutal murder.
Mark Tidesley’s set design brings together Boyle’s dynamic and evocative production. The expansive Olivier Stage is most often a bare, white-washed, wasteland, exaggerating the Creature’s isolation, yet a later rotating stage reveals an impressively versatile use of space. While one half shows the formal, monochrome house of Frankenstein’s family, the other presents the dark and threatening underbelly of Victor’s labs. A swift reversal between the two creates a jarring contrast between the fantasy and reality of Victor’s life, while Tidesley’s effective design of set, and lighting perfectly reflect the Creature’s changing relation to the industrial world.
The production’s only disappointment lay in the script itself. Though the text must be heavily cut down, Nick Dear’s script translated Shelley’s nuanced moral questions into overtly basic terms. When old DeLacey states, “When we leave the womb, we are pure… evil is a product of social forces,” any subtle social commentaries are overly simplified and banal. It was a shame that incredibly little of Shelley’s beautiful writing was retained; none of her most powerful or evocative phrases, that immortalised her work beyond the plot, were included. References to Paradise Lost were dropped in without precision, and callous asides calling Victor “monstrous” at the play’s end demonstrate that Dear’s script tainted such an original production with dialogue akin to a SparkNotes translation.
Ultimately, I was surprised to see viewers on Twitter arguing that Boyle’s production overly romanticises the Creature – “you’re allowed to hate him, he’s a monster and a murderer”, some said. To fully appreciate Boyle’s work, you need to leave your preconceptions, and loyalty toward Shelley’s novel, at the door – not only for minor changes in plot, but for major changes in empathetic direction. Boyle’s production is uniquely powerful because it forces you to view the narrative from the Creature’s perspective, it makes you learn, feel, laugh and cry, as he does. To condemn him as a monster in this production is to ignore how Boyle defines humanity through his Creature, as always learning and loving.
Both versions of Frankenstein by the National Theatre are available to watch on YouTube until May 7. TW blood, TW rape: the scene is cut from the aired production, but implied.
If you enjoy the production, please consider donating to support your local and national theatres during this time!