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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
FRANKENSTEIN
at the National (Olivier)

LEARNING TO LIE
By CLIVE HIRSCHHORN

  Karl Johnson and Benedict Cumberbatch/Ph: Catherine Ashmore

The National Theatre hasn't so much pulled out all the stops for director Danny Boyle's freshly minted concept of Mary Shelley's enduring masterpiece Frankenstein; it has positively hurled them at him. With the kind of awesome resources regularly provided by the Olivier, Boyle, making a welcome return to the theatre, adopts a filmic approach to this familiar Gothic fantasy in which a brilliant young scientist plays God by flaunting nature and creating a man not of woman born. And very effective it is too.
 
In a constantly changing set by Mark Tildesley, who, astonishingly, has never designed for the stage before. Boyle offers up a theatrical tour de force enhanced by the decision to alternate the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and his creation, as well as by Bruno Poet's lighting and an atmospheric score and sound effects by Underworld
 
On the first night, Jonny Lee Miller played the monster and fast-rising star Benedict Cumberbatch was Victor Frankenstein. On the second night the roles were reversed.
 
The question, of course, is who fares better and in which roles? Miller's monster – emerging unformed and stark naked from a DaVinci-like paper placenta, struck me as the more physical of the two. The first 10 minutes, in which, like some newborn calf, he literally tries to stand upright, is astonishingly visceral. As he flails around to the accompaniment of his own inarticulate grunts, I feared he might do himself a serious injury by bouncing on his hands and stomach until the triumphant moment in which he literally finds his feet and does a joyous lap of honour around the vast Olivier stage.
 
Throughout the two-hour evening (without intermission) during which he morphs from Adam to Satan, learns to talk, read, think, love and, ultimately, hate, you never doubt for an instant that, whatever his "accomplishments," he remains a grotesque scientific experiment.
 
A less histrionic Cumberbatch, on the other hand, becomes more human with each scene, which might explain why, in the end, he moved me more than Miller did. All the same, I remain undecided whether this "humanizing" process is really what the 18-year-old Mary Shelley had in mind when she wrote her novel in 1818.
 
There is no question, though, that Cumberbatch makes far more of Dr. Frankenstein than Miller does, which has more to do with his superior acting skills than anything in Nick Dear's clunky script. Indeed, it is the script, which is often underwritten and, in the minor roles, under-characterized, that prevents Frankenstein from being a great play as well as a great production.
 
Only in the last two scenes – the callous murder of Frankenstein's bride and, in a departure from Mary Shelley's novel, the redemptive annihilation of man and monster – does the text live up to the production. Having learnt from his brief association with mankind "how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate … and finally how to lie," the monster – as played by a heavily gesticulating Cumberbatch, his voice reminiscent at times of a young Ian McKellan – is endowed with a Lear-like intensity.
 
For much of the early part of the evening, however – especially following the extraordinary 10-minute opening, the narrative unfurls at a plod, especially the unconvincing time-lapse scenes in which the monster is shown kindness by a blind man, who, oblivious to his wretched physical appearance – teaches him to talk and to read. Before you can say "hang on a minute!" the creature is even quoting passages from Milton's Paradise Lost.
 
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