The story of Dr Frankenstein and his flawed, majestic Creature is one of the greatest of all modern myths — perhaps the greatest. It reaches back to the Bible, and forward to Blade Runner and beyond. “Fiery the angels fell…” As the years go by, the achievement of the teenage Mary Shelley seems ever more extraordinary and contemporary.
The notes to Danny Boyle’s eagerly anticipated new production point out that the first living synthetic cell was created just last year, with the unromantic designation of JCVI-syn1.0, although, unlike Dr Frankenstein’s Creature, it doesn’t quote Milton, long for self-improvement, or do much at all except self-replicate. Boyle’s Frankenstein is also a flawed, episodic but at times majestic piece of work. There are things to make you uneasy from the start, and it could be that the more you know and love the original story, with all its rich Romantic ferment of ideas about justice and society, nature and nurture, God and creativity, the less you will like this show. But I saw it two nights running, for good reason, and learnt to admire it more second time around.
The reason for this double viewing is that the two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternate in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature (the National website tells you which you’ll get). This is no gimmick, but a neat reflection of creature/creator kinship. And, happily, both actors do terrific Creatures, thanks not least to the director of movement, Toby Sedgwick, whose work is outstanding.
We first see the Creature erupt from a kind of suspended amniotic sack, to a white flare of electricity. He rolls and writhes and grunts, gradually learns to haul himself upright, and to walk. And then comes his first encounter with another living being: his creator, Victor, telling him to keep away, and fleeing in disgust.
The music from Underworld is also superb throughout — expertly used by Boyle, as you might expect — and the Creature’s primal, jerky little dance of joy before the rising sun, with the birds ascending, is deeply touching, loaded with echoes of Blake, Milton and, above all, Adam in the Garden of Eden. Equally moving is another weird and wonderful dance, when he joins hands with his imaginary girlfriend in a dream sequence. In time, he is befriended by a kindly blind old man, who teaches him to speak, read and understand. Both Cumberbatch and Miller communicate immense pathos here as we see the Creature, hands twisted and thrawn, head skewed, mouth agape, scarred and botched all over with his creator’s incompetent sutures and cut’n’paste surgery, reciting Paradise Lost, brokenly but with the deepest feeling.
And having once tasted of the tree of knowledge, his fall begins. The more he learns, the more he longs for, and from the example of men he discovers “how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate”, and finally “how to lie”.
Although both leads make fine Creatures, Cumberbatch is far more convincing as Victor. Nick Dear’s script undercharacterises him, reducing this unlikeable yet compelling and brilliant obsessive (arguably based on Mary Shelley’s own beloved Percy Bysshe) to little more than a vain and silly scientist, but Cumberbatch injects real intellectual passion and fire into the role. Miller, meanwhile, is more powerful and physical as the monster, and ultimately more moving, while Cumberbatch is more cerebral. You might even say that Cumberbatch’s Creature is more Gielgud; Miller’s, more Olivier… Naomie Harris as Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth, is sweet and lovable, but sometimes has to deliver clumsy and anachronistic lines. “What is wrong with you men?” this Romantic-era heroine demands at one point, sounding implausibly like Germaine Greer, circa 1974. Sure, she’s a feisty enough character — Shelley herself was a bit of a protofeminist, and her mum certainly was — but a line such as this sticks out like Greer at a conference of Wahhabi imams.
Ella Smith is delightful as Elizabeth’s maid, Clarice, observing of her husband’s bedroom habits with a hilarious resignation: “He’d put a bag on my head if he could” (anachronistic, again, I know). But George Harris as Victor’s father is wrong in every way: accent, delivery, posture. He even looks uncomfortable in his ruffled shirt and breeches. Other minor characters are boringly sketchy and also have to wrestle with dodgy dialogue. When townsfolk drive the Creature away, instead of crying “Abhorred villain!” after him, it’s “Piss off, you ugly bastard!” Yet at other times, inconsistently, the dialogue strains to sound appropriately period.
The early appearance of a steam train on stage, accompanied by people in eye shades swinging picks and shovels, is meant to symbolise the Industrial Revolution, I think, but feels shovelled in and far too extravagantly theatre, while the impression that this is a distinctly unliterary adaptation is reinforced with a reference to Plutarch’s Lives of the Emperors. There’s no such book. Nor were the emperors “the founders of Rome”.
Mark Tildesley’s set design gives us only a sparse suggestion of the sublime and terrible landscapes of the Alps and the Arctic, so powerfully evoked in the book, although the closing scene is hauntingly well done. For all the evening’s faults, this climax is one of many unforgettably powerful moments. When the Creature takes his final revenge upon Victor, in Elizabeth’s virginal-white bedroom, it produces an electric shock of horror and a collective gasp from the audience. “Now I am a man!” he cries triumphantly — one of the most frightening lines of the evening, though not in the original script. It reminds you that Frankenstein is both a peerless horror story as well as a profound philosophical inquiry — although this version is always more comfortable with the former than the latter.