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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National Theatre (Olivier)


  Naomi Harris and Jonny Lee Miller/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

With this stage adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, directed by Danny Boyle, the National Theatre has a monster hit on its hands. Which throws up a question for punters eager to experience it (provided they can get a ticket, of course – most were sold before the production even opened): which Creature to catch? And which Creator? Because, thanks to the double casting of Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, who alternate in the two roles each night, there are four different performances to compare.
In truth, it doesn’t matter all that much which configuration you see. Cumberbatch is, in essence, the better actor, and both his portrayals are more nuanced than Miller’s. His Creature has warmth, and an appealing innocence that turns to bitter wit; Miller’s is more imposing, more unearthly, with a more brooding menace. But it’s in their respective Frankensteins that Cumberbatch’s superior skills really show, with Miller offering a rather blunt reading dominated by a smouldering, introverted intensity, where Cumberbatch is emotionally immature, intellectually brilliant, icy, arrogant, spoilt, terrified, acerbic and driven. But by and large the differences are not vast – and scarcely marked enough to demand a double viewing.
Boyle’s staging, designed by Mark Tildesley and exquisitely lit by Bruno Poet, is well worth seeing once, though – despite the fact that, for all its moments of visual excitement, some thrilling, highly physical sequences and a pleasingly creepy atmosphere, the stitches that hold this creation together are often all too visible and strained.
The opening scene is utterly compelling. A huge bell, hanging over the stalls, tolls ominously, and there’s a blaze of scorching light from myriad naked bulbs suspended from a mirrored shard. The Creature, his flesh livid and scarred, bursts out of a kind of pulsating amniotic pod, umbilical cord still attached. Child-like, he crawls and stumbles to his feet; slowly, painfully, he begins to learn to walk and then, with grunting, inarticulate triumph, to run. But though there is something touching and miraculous in the sight of this adult innocent’s exuberance, he is an immediate spectacle of horror and shame to Frankenstein, who, appalled, flings him out into the world. Flights of birds stream gracefully skywards at his approach; the sun beams upon him; but, he quickly discovers, human beings flinch from him in fear, or beat him away in disgust.
What began as immediately thrilling quickly loses its coherence. The first encounter between Frankenstein and the Creature is rushed, and it seems ludicrous that the hubristic genius would not have been present at the birth. And elements quickly creep into the staging that seem incongruous: the noisy arrival of a skeletal steam train, belching sparks and smoke and carrying sooty-faced passengers in grotesque goggles, symbolises industrial revolution, but feels clumsily crow-barred into the action. Later, a dream ballet in which the Monster fantasises about his perfect bride seems equally superfluous.
But by far the biggest problem is Nick Dear’s script. The novel itself is a hefty and unwieldy work, and this adaption does at least render it swift, in an interval-free two hours. But the dialogue is often horribly clunky, sometimes to the point of bathos, and the supporting characters are lifeless. In the attempt to reanimate them, some of the cast give performances of toe-curling coarseness. It’s also disappointing that the soundtrack, by the electro duo Underworld, doesn’t make a stronger impression; a blend of folk and choral singing, it’s less adventurous than you would expect from these dance-music innovators, and surprisingly underused.
Yet for all that, there is a galvanising excitement here. It’s partly due to the enduring fascination of Shelley’s dark vision – which seems to shapeshift, with the passage of time, to remain resonant from one age of scientific advance and moral ambiguity to the next. But it’s also, in no small part, the result of the efforts of the two actors at the centre of the piece, who wring rage, poignancy and terror from this seminal story. It’s a pity that the whole is somewhat disjointed and misshapen; but Miller and Cumberbatch are without doubt its thumping heart.

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