Hello, old friends. Here, in the hit National Theatre production by Danny Boyle, are the frigid genius Victor Frankenstein and his misbegotten monster, born of hubris, God complex, a bag full of stolen body parts and a blast of sizzling electricity. Back in 2011, Boyle’s staging – galvanised by spectacle and star-power – was especially notable for its central double act, in which Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (both of whom, coincidentally, have played versions of the legendary cold-blooded sleuth Sherlock on TV) alternated in the roles of Creature and creator. It was by no means without its flaws, but it was beyond doubt an event. To see it again nearly a decade later feels like a chance to reconnect not just with a memorable theatrical moment, but with a literary legend.
Theatre is always, at some level, an exploration of what it is to be human, and in Mary Shelley’s brilliant, far-reaching classic of creation and destruction, mortal and divine, sacred and damned, it finds a truly epic, spectacular and profound tale for the telling. As is the way with major works of art, the story is a shapeshifter that takes on new meaning for every age that encounters it. Right now, its depiction of alienation and powerlessness sounds a sonorous knell. Those of us spitting fury at the daily news updates on the idiocies of our leaders may find other resonances in its depiction of authority, of the cruelties and thoughtlessness of those who rule, and of the exploitation of the vulnerable. “I am your master! You should show me respect!” barks Victor Frankenstein to his poor, abused and misshapen Creature, who tartly snarls back, “A master has duties. You left me to die.” It’s a charge one might level on some considerably less brilliant political minds in the current crisis.
Nick Dear’s dialogue is not always quite so astute. Sometimes it’s leaden, or overly broad; sometimes it labours a little too strenuously to point up the drama’s dualities. But if some of the ensemble work, through which Boyle attempts to create a sense of the novel’s epic sweep, looks a touch cod – roistering street scenes, a steampunkish evocation of the Industrial Revolution with sooty-faced urchins and whirling cogs and hammers – elsewhere the production delivers some thrilling visuals. An enormous tolling bell and a blazing constellation of lightbulbs hang over the audiences’ heads. The Creature bursts into life by fighting free of a giant, pulsing amnion. Toby Sedgwick’s movement direction sees him flapping like some evolutionary amphibian before finding his feet with the tumbling, unsteady joy of a toddler. Later, he gambols amid snowfall, sunlight or birdsong with ecstatic pleasure – and discovers the revulsion and treachery of society with a child-like pain and incomprehension. By his final, deadly confrontation with his maker, he has experienced not only the sublime – the longing for love, the pleasures of art and philosophy (he has a particular penchant for Milton’s Paradise Lost) – but also the agonies of revilement from people who preach Christianity, but fear and punish the Other.
So, if you’re going to watch it only once, which casting should you choose? Cumberbatch’s interpretations of both roles are richer. His Creature has a bitter wit and a battery of expressive physical traits – his fingers habitually stray over the sutures that crisscross his skull as if trying to make sense of them; his forefinger reaches heavenwards like Michelangelo’s Adam as he contemplates his godless existence and his own living hell on earth. His Frankenstein, meanwhile, is ascetic, with an arctic frost. Miller, on the other hand, gives us a more frighteningly brutish monster, and a more romantic scientist – all raven Byronic locks and flaming eyes. Either way, the two actors make a compelling coupling, and their performances translate to screen, in Tim Van Someren’s filming, with an impressive grace and intensity. In fact, Boyle’s production as a whole has a fierce propulsion, grappling with the bloody potency of Shelley’s dense and demanding work, and mustering its own vivid, nightmarish force. Like the Creature himself, it’s an imperfect but unforgettable expression of the dark, dazzling potential of human imagination.