Cumberbatchweb -Review of Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature – 7 February 2011

sh1So after weeks of anticipation it was time to head off to the National Theatre to watch  Frankenstein starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.

There’s plenty to entertain you in the theatre when you get there from the lavish stall selling Danny Boyle books and many different versions of the Frankenstein novel to the themed drinks (£5.95 gets you The Experiment, a refreshing lightly alcoholic green concoction which comes with a dry ice stirrer meaning that it bubbles away marvellously, the lady behind the bar actually jumped with glee when we ordered them as we were the first of the night to do so).

Finally they started to let people in and we headed down to our seats. In many ways it’s a little unfair to review a preview as the play is still in a state of flux and everything can (and frequently does) change significantly before opening night. However, here be spoilers…

As you walk in the first thing you see on the bare stage is a round pale translucent membrane, stretched thin over an apparatus which is gently pulsing with light. In the middle of this womb (it’s all very H.R Giger) we see a backlit figure undulating within holding onto a rope which looks like an umbilical cord. The womb revolves around the stage getter closer and closer to the audience before moving away again while the audience takes their seats. (On a fun note there is also a huge church bell overhanging the stalls with a rope hanging down which you can pull as you make your way to your seats – it makes an almighty clanging noise). 

As the audience settles the lights go dark only for the audience to be instantly blinded by a ferocious blast of light from the mirrored ceiling which is festooned with lightbulbs which overhang the stalls. As the blast of light hits us the Creature jerks and wakes, the membrane parts and he awkwardly jerks out of the womb onto the floor beneath. Benedict Cumberbatch was playing the Creature opposite Johhny Lee Miller as Frankenstein. As the light continued to flash we finally see the Creature in all his glory. Naked covered in what looks like reddish dust and covered with thick black sutures it’s a hugely impressive piece of make up design. As the Creature Cumberbatch is bald with a skull cap with patches of dark hair. There are crude stitches on his back where his kidneys are and a Y incision as you would expect to see in an autopsy has been stitched on his chest. His head and face are crudely covered with large stitches and staples papering over gaping raw wounds. At times Cumberbatch was inches away from me and yet even up close the make up stood up to scrutiny (well one errant prosthetic was escaping by the end of the show but overall its a stunning piece of work).

The opening sequence as the Creature awkwardly flounders around on the stage while it learns to walk is an astounding piece of physical acting from Cumberbatch. It was distressing to watch the Creature (effectively just a child) crawling and dragging his body across the stage as he gets used to his limbs and how to walk. It’s actually quite distressing to watch (despite the nervous titters of laughter from some of the audience) and your heart bleeds for the Creature as he totters around on stage on limbs he isn’t used to, trying and failing to get back into the womb from whence he came. At this point Frankenstein appears but he is so horrified by the image of this naked scrambling mewling “thing” that he abandons his creation covering it with a hood and fleeing the scene.

The Creature ventures out into the world where he immediately stumbles upon a train full of people. In a quite extraordinary moment symbolising the onset of the Industrial Revolution a huge steam train populated by the ensemble (wearing steampunk style goggles) appears on stage and rumbles its way out into the audience. It’s an audacious piece of staging – especially as the train is never seen again.

The Creature recoils in terror and runs away saving a prostitute from being terrorised by her client only to learn his first lesson that he is an ugly thing feared by others. He runs and we get to see him luxuriate in the heat of the rising sun and marvel at birds flying overhead and experience the feel (and taste!) of grass. He then gets liberally soaked in a shower and experiences cold, shivering wildly, before scaring off two men who were about to sit down to eat before a fire. The Creature learns about fire and food in quick succession before the two men return and cruelly beat him.

The Creature then reappears clad in loose grey raggedy trousers and long sleeved top where he happens upon the blind De Lacey in his cabin. De Lacey gains his trust over the changing seasons (simply conveyed with different light and a snow storm in which the Creature frolics like a child trying to taste the snow on his tongue – delightful!) and teaches him to read and write. De Lacey is beautifully played by Karl Johnson – it’s a really lovely role. The Creature repays his kindness by assisting his family by clearing their fields of rocks so they can sow crops and leaving them bundles of chopped firewood.

As The Creature at this stage in the play Cumberbatch switched from inarticulate clicking sounds to speech while somehow managing to keep half of his face paralysed like a stroke victim resulting in his speech being purposefully somewhat slurred.  Remarkable is too simple a word to do justice to the performance. De Lacey becomes the Creature’s friend teaching him of emperors and kings, of Milton, helping him to read Frankenstein’s journal and listening to him as he tells him of his loneliness (that he is as solitary as the moon) and how he is hated and feared by everyone he meets. The Creature aspires to be like the humans even if he doesn’t understand why they live as they do but everywhere he turns he is met with hatred. He dreams of having someone like him who could understand his loneliness (his bride who appears in a nifty bit of interpretative dance). De Lacey continually begs him to stay and meet his family but the Creature, wary of humans refuses. Eventually he agrees to meet them and while holding De Lacey’s hand nervously greets De Lacey’s son in law bowing deeply like a courtly gentleman as he does. He is met with screams from De Lacey’s pregnant daughter and is repeatedly attacked by the son in law until he runs away screaming a childish, plaintive cry of “You promised.”

Spurned by De Lacey The Creature seeks vengeance setting alight to their cabin, burning him and his family alive.

We then switch to Geneva where Victor’s brother William is playing hide and seek with his fiancee Elizabeth. The Creature appears behind him telling him not to look at him. It was interesting to note that the more terrifying The Creature became the more articulate he sounded. The Creature wants to be friends with William, telling him shyly with a small child’s enthusiasm that “everyone should have friends” and that they will climb the mountains together. Once The Creature realises who William is his demeanour changes and while his words are childish the threat he poses becomes clear. William becomes increasingly distressed and tries to run but the Creature abducts him.

At this stage (a good 50 minutes into the play) Frankenstein (played by Jonny Lee Miller in a rather distracting wig) appears frantically searching for the lost William. A boat appears hauntingly through a fog of dry ice in which the frantic Victor finds the body of his brother covered in the torn pages of his journal. The moment where it begins to dawn on Victor what the pages mean was brilliantly conveyed by Miller. Overall however this rather distressing scene fell curiously flat (the other members of the cast vary wildly in terms of acting ability and have some painfully trite lines to spout). Hopefully it will get tightened up as the previews continue.

Victor leaves his family to search for the Creature and the moment the two appear on stage together (probably close to an hour in) the show absolutely comes alive. Any time Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch are on stage together is simply electrifying. It’s a brilliant scene with Victor’s cool clinical analysis of the Creature’s abilities turning into both shock and smug arrogant joy at his own superior brilliance as he realises that the Creature is capable of speech and reasoning. The Creature overflowing with fury demands to know why he was created and then promptly abandoned while Victor can only crow over his achievements seeing the Creature as nothing more than an experiment while it tries to point out that it is every bit as human as he and that Frankenstein cannot “play sport with my life”. The moment where the Creature turns on him and Victor goes from struggling desperately trying to prevent his neck being snapped to going still with shock as the Creature recites Milton’s Paradise Lost and he realises that his creation is capable of understanding and appreciating literature is wonderfully played by both of them. The whole scene is marvellous Lee Miller superior, cold and cruel – the Creature both murderous with rage and yet instantly ashamed as he wants to talk to Victor,  he knows he is capable of reason and he so so wants to be “good”. Victor and the Creature strike a bargain. Victor will build the Creature a bride, someone as hideous as him who can love him and The Creature will leave Victor alone.

Victor returns to his family (a massively impressive set appears out of the barren stage featuring the Frankenstein homestead on one side and Victor’s remote hideaway on the other) and tells Elisabeth (the luminous Naomie Harris) that he must leave her for a remote island off the coast of Scotland for his research. She is keen to marry and be with him and tries to convince him to take her too. It’s a lovely scene – Elisabeth is adorably winsome and Victor somewhat aloof and utterly clueless – you do wonder how he managed to attract such a lovely fiancee.

Victor leaves for his island hideaway where he convinces two locals (the rather hammy comic relief) to obtain body parts for him so he can build his bride. He constructs her but is then visited by William in a dream who warns him of the risk of the Creature and the Bride mating and populating the world with their hideous offspring.The Creature appears and Victor shows him the beautiful Bride he has made for him. But before he agrees to fully animate her he wants to know if the Creature will love her. The Creature is enraptured by her beauty and holding her hand tightly promises that he will lavish her with adoration. They will leave the country and live safely together away from humanity. He explains what falling in love feels like, like his heart will pound out of his chest – it’s a beautiful speech,  wonderfully delivered and your heart can’t help but break hearing it as you know precisely how the scene will end. Victor tells him to fetch some clothes for the Bride out of his trunk while he will finish bringing her to life. The Creature opens the trunk to discover only books and removes the curtain to discover that Victor has disemboweled the Bride (less gory than it sounds. I suspect from far away this looked very impressive – up close it looked every inch the mannequin covered with fake blood it was, not helped by a slight rebound when the apparatus it was on was swung round too enthusiastically by Miller). The Creature turns on Victor in a rage but has to flee when Victor’s father arrives.  He and his companions are horrified by what they see and think Victor has gone mad.

Months later and back in Geneva it is Victor and Elisabeth’s wedding day. Elisabeth is excited at, well, the prospect of enjoying her wedding night while Victor is working himself into a nervous frenzy patrolling the grounds for the Creature. He confesses his deeds in creating the Creature to Elisabeth who doesn’t at first believe him. She is horrified at his actions but ultimately forgiving. She wants to be with Victor and have a child with him and wants him to remain with her. He is too frightened of the Creature’s vengeance and leaves to secure the grounds promising that he will “try to love her”.

At which point the Creature appears from under the bed and grabs Elisabeth from behind asking her to guess who he is. It’s very well choreographed – even near to the stage you couldn’t see him lurking underneath and half the audience screamed the place down when he appeared.  The Creature is so very bitter and angry but Elisabeth shows him kindness. While initially horrified by him she is amazed at Victor’s cleverness and intrigued by the Creature treating him as a person and asking his name (he bitterly tells her that he was never given the luxury of a name). They speak,  Elisabeth exuding pity and compassion. The Creature asks her to sit on the bed next to him promising that he will not harm her as he is a gentleman and knows right from wrong. Elisabeth listens as he tells her of the Bride, of his interactions with humans and how Victor taught him one very important thing….how to lie. He tells her that Victor broke his promise to him and apologises to her. Realising that she is in mortal peril she dives for the door but the Creature easily stops her dragging her up onto the bed. Victor walks in on his creation raping his wife on their bed. The Creature looks at him and smiles before casually breaking Elisabeth’s neck and declaring loudly as he climaxes that “that was good.”

The Creature flees while a distraught Victor tries to encourage his family to assist him to move Elisabeth to his laboratory where he can bring her back. His horrified family refuse.

In the final scene the Creature (now clad in a natty jacket) is being endlessly pursued ever northwards to the North Pole by an exhausted and distraught Victor. The Creature has food for Victor and in a role reversal cares for him like a wounded child. Victor collapses and the Creature believing him to be dead, desperately tries to revive him distressed at the loss of his master. He only ever wanted his master to love him and now he will be cheated of that. Victor revives and they sit facing each other- body language perfectly mirrored.

The Creature thinks Victor coming back means that Victor loves him. Victor tells him that pursuing him gives him purpose and that he needs him to run. Its not love, not even close but it’s enough for the Creature who gets up and leads Victor into the distance as they literally walk off into the sunset together.

On the whole I found Frankenstein to be brilliantly performed by the leads and visually stunning but frustratingly uneven in places and hampered by some poor dialogue and occasionally shocking acting from the ensemble.

Benedict Cumberbatch is simply stunning as the Creature. It’s easy to run out of superlatives discussing his performance. His physicality at the beginning is extraordinary (he described at the stage door a litany of injuries including cut feet, bruises on his legs, sprained muscles, joints popping out in his wrist and spasms in his back!) and he manages to effortlessly portray both the childish innocence and terrible murderous rage of the character while entirely maintaining the audience’s sympathies (not easy given that the character burns a family alive, murders a small child and rapes and kills an innocent woman). All of his scenes with Jonny Lee Miller are superb and his scenes with De Lacey and Elisabeth are heartbreaking.

The play very much belongs to the Creature to the extent that it flags considerably every time the Creature isn’t on stage but Jonny Lee Miller makes a fine Frankenstein, arrogant, smug, cold and cruel but emotionally devastated at the loss of Elisabeth. I especially liked his nightmare sequence with the dead William as he begins to fret over the consequences of building the Bride.

Naomie Harris is gorgeous, winsome and adorable as Elisabeth. Its far too tiny a role for an actress of her status but she’s wonderful and the audience is left devastated at Elisabeth’s murder.

But outside of the two leads, Naomie and Karl Johnson the remainder of the ensemble were occasionally a little ropey which robbed some crucial scenes (the discovery of William’s body and the Frankenstein family finding Victor surrounded by body parts) of their emotional power. 

There were also some typical preview hiccups – the revolving drum on which the set of Frankenstein’s house is built stopped working which meant that there was a 5 minute stoppage of the play, a couple of the scene changes were over long and cumbersome, some atmospheric flashes of lightening showed a NT employee with poor timing fiddling with the set but those are all easily overcome.

As you would expect the play is visually stunning, the design of the Creature, the womb from which it’s born, the extraordinary steam train, the lavish sets, the lighting which deserves an essay all of its own, all hugely impressive. I would expect no less from Danny Boyle and he definitely delivers.

Special mention must also go to the Underworld score which is sparse and haunting and discordant and just complements the action on stage absolutely perfectly.

Overall at the moment the production is patchy with elements letting it down. But it is a visual and aural feast, boasting very fine performances from its leads and it is worth the trip entirely to see Benedict Cumberbatch’s extraordinary performance as the Creature. He is beyond brilliant in the role.