Original sin; utter hubris

FILM REVIEW: FRANKENSTEIN. This review is premised on the version of the work with Jonny Lee Miller as the creature.


BEHOLD! A man! Jonny Lee Miller is Frankenstein. Photograph courtesy IMDb.

A man makes a living creature by pulling together alchemical possibilities and graveyard detritus sewn together with a crude hand. And thus starts one of the western world’s most memorable tales of moral quandary all rolled up in colonial prejudice and larger than life monsters. In a curious curatorial decision, the National Theatre at Home project broadcasts two different casting decisions, which effectively forces two renditions of a stage production of Mary Shelley’s 1817 Frankenstein into a comparison with one another. This is more than a theatrical marketing gesture; it is one that feeds into a deep understanding of the parallels evident in the work itself.

And while you may not necessarily elect to watch the two versions of this blood-curdling narrative of blood and gore, death and wantonness one after the other, the productions are effectively two completely different entities. With Jonny Lee Miller as the monster in this rendition of the work and Benedict Cumberbatch as his creator, something of a Jekyll and Hyde narrative enfolds the two pieces, offering a caveat which is as much about evil perpetrated by an innocent, as it is about evil perpetrated in the name of overweening ambition and experiment. It’s a tale of ugliness and beauty as moral converses to one another, which will touch you like a stiff drink.

Neither work is preferable. The creature interpreted by Miller and that by Cumberbatch are infiltrated with different nuances, physical presence and energies and while the script is identical and the muscularity of the piece in its design and structure is mirrored, watching the two in close time proximity offers you closer insights into the rich and magnificent nuances of this tightly woven work which is as much about loneliness as it is about socioeconomic potency and colonial power.

With its low-tech train and choral megaphones, the production sees the creature emerge into the world like something of Darwin’s ken, as he flaps and struggles to find purchase in this world, under a miscellany of lights that feel like an organic entity. It’s a frightening exercise: as it teeters on the brink of fantasy, it plays with an urgent sense of possibility and superstition couched in philosophical moments which are as fresh and relevant today as they may have been several hundred years ago.

In effect, exposure to both interpretations of the work becomes a critic’s dream, but not necessarily an audience member’s wish. It’s an interesting exercise in theatrical magnificence. Whatever you do, see at least one of these versions.

  • 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 until May 6 via the National Theatre’s youtube channel.

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