A tale of monsters and broken men

FILM REVIEW: FRANKENSTEIN. This review is premised on the version of the work with Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature.


THE blind leading the broken: De Lacey (Karl Johnson) with Frankenstein’s creature (Benedict Cumberbatch). Photograph courtesy IMDb.

What is it that gives us humanity? Nay, that gives us life? The stuff that distinguishes life from death is the substance of the 1817 prototype gothic horror novel named Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which spawned countless of versions of shlock and horror in film and on stage since then. But with the stage adaptation of Nick Dear and the direction of Danny Boyle, this National Theatre production doesn’t poke crude fun and conjure up crass laughter at things that go bump in the night. The stark and strong philosophical premises are upheld with immense clarity in this beautiful work.

This is no wordy extrapolation on high flying ideals, however, with lighting that is as beautiful and potent on stage when it is off as when it flashes with moral and life-giving bursts; and glorious sound that underpins the rich drama, evoking the work of Polish composer Krzyzstof Penderecki, the work is magnetic, from the moment the creature (Benedict Cumberbatch) squeezes himself through a matrix and into life on stage. The physicality of this performer may evoke the first clumsy attempts of a child or a young animal to make sense of the world, and with epileptic choreography and a deep understanding of spirit, he becomes human in a way that courts fear and distaste but also empathy.

The magnificence of this colonial yarn pitching haphazard scarry monster head to head with another kind of monster – Victor Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller) caught up in the miasma of his own hubris and the terror of the unknown, is completely riveting. Playing with the striations and stripes of elements of the set, everything from depth to space, incoherent forces at play to harmonious ones, are evoked with simple directness and devastating drama.

But it is the mix of deeply earnest values expressed with utter conviction and a levity that gives the work a Shakespearean sheen of credibility. Ewan (John Stahl) and his son (Rab) Mark Armstrong lend the work a colloquial texture which makes you laugh out loud in the most gory and gruesome aspect of this horrifying tale.

Cumberbatch is completely astonishing in his poetic sense of brokenness and his engagement with the first bit of gentleness in the form of the blind man, De Lacey (Karl Johnson) is handled with a give and take that is rich and complex, clear and unforgettable in how it espouses the value of knowledge and the knowledge of self-value through the eyes and heart of a half-tamed creature.

In short, it is a masterpiece.

  • Frankenstein is written by Mary Shelley, adapted for stage by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle for the National Theatre in London. It is performed by Mark Armstrong, Martin Chamberlain, Benedict Cumberbatch, Josie Daxter, Haydon Downing,  Steven Elliot, George Harris, Naomie Harris, Daniel Ings, Karl Johnson, John Killoran, Daniel Millar, Jonny Lee Miller, Will Nye, Andreea Paduraru, Jared Richard, Ella Smith, John Stahl and Lizzie Winkler. Produced and presented by National Theatre Live, it features creative input by Karl Hyde and Rick Smith (music) Underworld (sound score), Alastair Coomer (casting), Kevin French (filming), Bruno Poet (lighting), Mark Tildesley (set), Suttirat Anne Larlarb (costumes), Ed Clarke (sound), Toby Sedgwick (movement) and Kate Waters (fight choreography). It broadcasts for free until May 6 via the National Theatre’s youtube channel.

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