Frankenstein, the play, directed by Danny Boyle, is just the latest in an almost innumerable sequence of stage, television and film versions of Shelley’s book. Ever since it was published, almost 200 years ago, arty types in theatre, movies and television, have found the story of Frankenstein’s act of life-giving irresistible.
Boyle’s Frankenstein for the National Theatre has won over almost all the critics. Here’s a round-up.
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times was impressed by the opening ideas:
It’s amazing how a simple rope can connect an audience with a stage. The Olivier Theatre can be an alienating space for viewers, so Danny Boyle, on his return to theatre direction, had the masterly idea of simply hanging a bell-rope down into the central aisle. Every so often an actor tolls it but the rest of the time we are at liberty to give it a ding ourselves.
Space, scale and connection inform Boyle’s approach to the classic Frankenstein tale throughout. The performance proper (two hours without interval) begins with a blinding flash of light from an enormous array of light bulbs covering about half of the ceiling; this, and its repetitions, are the electric charges that jolt the Creature into life as it falls out of a huge membranous pouch.
Kate Bassett for The Independent was not particularly impressed by Boyle’s direction:
Returning to stage work after Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle seems keen to demonstrate a mastery of physical theatre, so physical that it verges on modern dance. The Creature (choreographed by Toby Sedgwick) bursts through a pulsating membrane. Flopping face-down, he writhes and flips, crawls on all fours and finally levers himself on to two feet. It’s an episode that, while condensing child development and Darwinian evolution with gymnastic skill, goes on far too long.
Abridged scenes ensue, in almost ludicrously hacked-down snippets. Frankenstein dashes on stage and off, appalled. A surreal chorus line in goggles and top hats rides in on a spectacularly infernal locomotive. Chanting unintelligibly as the engine spews sparks, they presumably represent the industrial revolution and urban incivility, cudgelling the Creature, apparently without motive.
Charles Spencer in The Telegraph is impressed by Boyle’s role switching idea:
In Danny Boyle’s eagerly awaited production of Frankenstein the show’s stars are alternating the roles of the scientist and the deformed Creature in Mary Shelley’s great gothic tale, first published in 1818.
I can report that both versions are well worth seeing. Miller, however, strikes me as the more disturbing and poignant monster, while Cumberbatch undoubtedly has the edge as the scientist who is ultimately revealed to lack the humanity of the unhappy creature he has created.
Either way, the show is a thrill — though the inevitable result of seeing it twice is that one does notice the occasional longueur, and the fact that Nick Dear’s sometimes plodding script doesn’t always live up to the brilliance of Boyle’s direction or the nervy intensity of the lead performances.
Henry Hitchings in The Evening Standard appreciated the designs:
The Creature’s growth towards eloquence is poignant and funny. Mark Tildesley’s design is full of brilliant surprises and operatic touches, and the Olivier’s revolve is used adroitly.
Especially fine is Bruno Poet’s lighting, which includes a giant mirrored wedge hung with bulbs that flare and wink — always to expressive effect. The scenes that concentrate on Cumberbatch and Miller are powerful. There is a compelling chemistry between them — a mix of frisson and tenderness.
Patrick Marmion in The Daily Mail noted that it isn’t perfect,
There are a few problems. Frankenstein’s father is bizarrely played as a huge, camp West Indian. Boyle sometimes lays on too many effects, and the dialogue in Nick Dear’s script is often drably pedestrian.
This is a memorable production and will doubtless be spoken of for years to come.
Paul Callan in The Daily Express had doubts about the script:
Mark Tildesley’s sets and Bruno Poet’s lighting effects are highly original.Yet, des pite the action and power of Messrs Lee Miller and Cumberbatch’s individual performances, the script often dragged as badly as the Creature’s foot when he learnt to walk.
Andrew Billen for The Times, in a beautifully written review, concludes poetically:
Brilliantly staged and acted, the National’s hit is satisfying for more reasons than a deep appeal to our fear of progress. Although the creature steals the show, the monster, by the end of it, is the scientist, unable to form relationships with women, somewhere on the autistic spectrum, arrogant, assuming the prerogative of the gods. It is, all round, a very unreassuring hit, and scary for all manner of reasons.
Photo: Frankenstein at The Olivier Theatre Jonny Lee Miller (Victor) Benedict Cumberbatch (The Creature) Photo: Alastair Muir