by Hazen Cuyler
Hideous and scarred and abandoned, a nameless creature roams the countryside. He’s shaped like a man and educated by a blind, retired professor over the course of a year. After learning of love, The Creature ventures to confront his maker—leaving a trail of devastation in his wake.
The National Theatre has revived Frankenstein (their acclaimed adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel). This critique dissects two versions of the same production featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating as Dr. Victor Frankenstein and The Creature. Academy Award winner Danny Boyle directs and each production streams free on YouTube through May 7. If The National’s digital showings aren’t already in your weekly routine, they should be. Because they don’t disappoint.
We can’t help envisioning some variation of Boris Karloff, a large man in a pleasant suit, bolts through the neck, a tall and flat skull, arms straight ahead and not much of a talker. The Creature (Dr. Frankenstein’s unnamed creation), portrayed by both Mr. Cumberbatch and Mr. Miller, could not be further from these presumptions.
With evocative dancer-like sensitivity, Mr. Cumberbatch accomplishes a primal, grotesque physicality as The Creature. Awoke in fear on cold earth, sewn together limbs thrash, desperate to escape a foreign torso. We imagine nerve endings soldered haphazardly. He struggles ceaselessly while learning to walk but with an infant’s gaiety The Creature laughs upon accomplishment. We watch him discover food and rain and grass and snow and sunrise and cold night. When alone and starved or unjustly beaten, we feel heartache and pity. We watch him mature with experience, knowledge and hatred. And we experience betrayal as he commits each new atrocity, justly earning the title of Monster.
Mr. Miller presents more man than Creature, less science experiment monstrosity and more abandoned miscreant coping with a severe head injury. This more-human interpretation is thrilling but ultimately sacrifices mystery and insight for relatability.
Full of delicious contradictions, incentivizing any actor to play The Creature is straightforward: a philosophical monster created for an unknown purpose and abandoned, containing child-like sensitivity and satanic wrath. On paper it’s a complex, iconic dream role. Dr. Victor Frankenstein, on the other hand, is complex but less sexy. Where both actors produce fine work as The Creature, entire scenes featuring Mr. Miller as Dr. Frankenstein suffer.
“Why?” asks Elizabeth (Naomi Harris), Dr. Frankenstein’s wife, after learning of his monstrous creation. “Why did you do that?” He looks off, stunned from a question he hadn’t considered. “Because I had a vision. A vision of perfection.” With Mr. Miller’s Dr. Frankenstein, we encounter strained speech heaved at an impassive wife. Circumstantially their relationship is intentionally devoid of sexuality but an overarching lack of chemistry exchanges visionary magic for indifference.
The same scene of the alternate production featuring Mr. Cumberbatch is more revealing. After being confronted, his eyes glow and we witness precision to his astonishment. Describing his vision of perfection, his inspiration appears within our mind’s eye. Of greater value, we empathize with his irrational, compulsive need to realize a dream regardless of consequence.
Mr. Cumberbatch’s Dr. Frankenstein scenes also contain more consistent comedy. When instructing men to deliver a plentiful supply of organs, lighthearted tension emerges as two gravediggers find themselves in over their heads. Whether speaking to his wife or father or creature or dead brother, Mr. Cumberbatch brings his expected brand of unaware, self-involved neurotic wit which, though familiar, enriches his scenes.
Consequently, if you’re looking for the best show overall, the production featuring Mr. Miller as The Creature and Mr. Cumberbatch as Dr. Frankenstein is a more balanced production because both leading men produce excellent work. If you’re looking for the better monster, I recommend Cumberbatch.
Nick Dear’s adaptation under Danny Boyle’s direction challenges our relationship to God. The production follows an imperfect man creating life without permission. A creator unwilling to destroy his creature, despite its sins, because of his own need for knowledge which he cannot possess. In the case of Dr. Frankenstein: love.
“But if you wanted to create life . . . then why not just give me a child?” Elizabeth asks. “I am talking about science,” Replies Victor. “No. You are talking about pride.” This play asks us to articulate a precise reason for why we must compulsively move forward. A scientist creates a monster because he can. That monster pursuits love because he discovers it. Two characters, God and Man, perpetually marching forward, desperate for more and never knowing satisfaction. A ceaseless progression toward an infinite white abyss.
Frankenstein. The National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein. Streaming free on YouTube through May 8. Two hours with a very brief intermission. https://youtu.be/dI88grIRAnY
Photos: Catherine Ashmore & National Theatre