A great bell calls silence. The Olivier is a dim red womb, pulsing with threat: overhead a mass of lights and tubes shimmer. A shadow rips through a membrane to become a bloody, scarred, naked man, racked by spasms of unfamiliar muscle. A baby learns movement sweetly by degrees, strength coming slowly, but this newborn adult has to struggle with horrible kicks and tremors to find uprightness. Abandoned, he wanders through an incomprehensible world where crowds mill and shriek and a huge, terrible machine roars towards us on rails from nowhere: a surreal caricature of industrial England. He flees. In wider fields the amazing sun rises, grass grows, larks fly upwards, fire burns, rain cools. All is new.
We are required to feel the dazzle and terror that the Creature endures, for in this adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel, too long vulgarised into horror films and monster cartoons, the writer, Nick Dear, and director, Danny Boyle, come fresh to the wonder and fear of it by taking the Creature’s point of view. If he is a monster, it is only because he meets abuse and blows.
It is a hell of a production: the set itself conveys unease, rising and revolving into harsh surprises. But it is the Creature that mesmerises, developing a jerky, defective, heartbreaking eloquence as ideas and desires invade him. The two leading parts, scientist and creature, alternate night by night and critics were asked to see both versions. First Benedict Cumberbatch was Victor Frankenstein, and Jonny Lee Miller appallingly brilliant as the Creature. That felt cast to type: Lee Miller animalistic, physically expressive, plaintive, primitive; and Cumberbatch, who without much trouble can always give us a scholarly, arrogant toff in a frock coat. Yet, the next night, Cumberbatch astonished in the monster role, moving into a zone of physical expressiveness and otherness we have never yet seen; and his scenes with Lee Miller’s tougher, hoarser Frankenstein worked even better than the first way round, through anger and argument to the ultimate, deep-damned unity of their flight to the magnetic, electric North Pole.
This taut, thrilling play runs to its awful conclusion without an interval, indeed with hardly a moment for breath. Yet it remains, as Mary Shelley intended, basically a work of philosophy, pathos and moral seriousness. In his brief experience of kindness from blind old De Lacey (a lovely, gentle performance by Karl Johnson) the Creature, taught to read Milton and Plutarch, cries: “Ideas batter me like hailstones. Who am I?”
He struggles with identity, with physicality, with knowing himself to be a thing galvanised by the new power of electrochemistry out of dead organs “stolen at night from wet soil, meat for dogs”. He is disabled by his lack of memory, baffled by mankind. Why do we herd together in cities for mutual help yet massacre one another, he asks. “I do not like inconsistent! Why must it be so?” Nameless, rootless, he is the ultimate exile. “Why do you know everything and I nothing? I am the one who stands outside the door.” Meeting hostility, he learns revenge; reading poetry, he dreams of love. Tracking down his elusive dilettante of a maker, in sharply funny confrontations with Victor Frankenstein, he pleads for a companion, a woman-thing like himself. His ruthlessness grows with rejection, stance and face hardening, losing their bloodied, baffled innocence.
Mark Tildesley’s stunning design and Bruno Poet’s remarkable lighting effects use the Olivier’s vastness with controlled, imaginative strength. The music, by Underworld, is perfect. Naomie Harris is calmly touching as Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée, and Ella Smith (British theatre’s top wench ’n’ trollop interpreteuse) is grand in her two quick cameos. The only jarring element is George Harris as Frankenstein’s father — a fine actor normally, but in this case disastrously uneasy with Victorian-melodramatic lines such as: “You flout my authority. In short, you disappoint me.”
Otherwise, it is rather wonderful: thoughtful, exciting, moving. At the 1823 dramatised version, ladies fainted in the stalls and critics thundered: “Do not take your wives and daughters!” We think we’re tougher now, but I nearly fell out of my seat at the shock bridal-chamber scene. Twice.
Libby Purves – copyright The Times 2011