Cinecast Review: Who is the Monster and Who is the Man?

review

{All photos by Catherine Ashmore, and courtesy National Theatre}

Frankenstein, by Nick Dear (based on the novel by Mary Shelley); directed by Danny Boyle; produced by National Theatre (part of National Theatre Live): seen October 24, 2016, originally broadcast March 17, 2011. (Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature version.) (This review was also published on SciFi4Me.com.)

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered by most scholars to be the first science fiction story. A modern day creation myth, instead of a god putting the spark of life through fantastic means, it is a man using science to create life. Many have also postulated that this was Shelley’s commentary on men wanting control over the one thing the female body can do that they can’t.

And, while often also put in the horror genre by many, there’s not much that can be called horror. Unless, of course, you go with the horror of humanity. This stage adaptation reminds us that we humans can be right bastards, to each other and to things that are new. And director Danny Boyle’s decision to have Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch switch the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature helps show how the Creature learns to be horrifying from not only society, but from his creator.

While the means of creation is never explained in the book, the theme of “I did it because I could/because it was there” is forever a part of our storytelling. From the story of Icarus and his wings to Iron Man’s creation of Ultron, the greatest fear of mankind is our hubris.

The story is well-known, and Boyle’s production starts out with the Creature still in it’s metaphorical womb. As it tears open, we have a good ten minutes (if not more) of watching him flail around, no dialogue, just learning how his body moves. It is here that you get the first sign that this production — like the book itself — is the Creature’s story, that Frankenstein — despite having it be named after him — is only secondary in this tale.

Over the run of the show, we see the Creature struggle like so many of us to find out who he is and where he came from. He learns to speak, and learns the ways of Victorian England. And alas, despite one shining moment of trust (which is heartbreakingly shattered), he also learns the harshest lesson. He learns about the cruelty of the world, of the hatred and fear so many have of ‘the other’ and of things that don’t look like us, and of the arrogance of man. He then goes to seek vengeance on his creator, seeking out Frankenstein to the literal ends of the world.

Cumber-crouch. Photo by Catherine Ashmore, and courtesy National Theatre.
Cumber-crouch. Photo by Catherine Ashmore, and courtesy National Theatre.

Cumberbatch, without any doubt, soars as the Creature. (Despite now seeing it three times, I have yet to see it with the roles reversed.) He rightfully earned the sharing of the Olivier Best Actor award (the only time so far that award has been co-shared by two actors). As I mentioned in my review of his Hamlet, Cumberbatch is best when he is subtle — and his portrayal is at times both broad and subtle. It is the little things — his mimicking the blind man to ‘be more human’, his humorous reaction to too hot food, his joy and fear at seeing his first snowfall — that makes you feel for the Creature. You relate to his not being able to be a part of the world, no matter how desperate he may wish to be.

Miller is excellent as Victor as well, showing the arrogance as well as bewilderment that his ‘experiment’ in creation apparently has succeeded. He seems to constantly be both surprised and arrogant that he managed to make his Creature, and it is not until later in the story that it dawns on him that he should be held responsible for his creation.

Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller) reflects - both literally and figuratively. Photo by Catherine Ashmore, and courtesy National Theatre.
Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller) reflects – both literally and figuratively. Photo by Catherine Ashmore, and courtesy National Theatre.

Finally, I cannot talk about this show without praising extensively the tech. We have open flame, the full use of the National Theatre’s rotating stage, falling snow, and scene changes that blow me away in their complex simplicity. This doesn’t even cover the haunting score by Underworld, or the lighting design by Bruno Poet that included (with set designer Mark Tildesley) 3,100 lightbulbs in the ceiling used most notably at the beginning to simulate the Creature’s life beginning. This is the kind of show that makes my inner technician squee with glee and want to show everyone how it can be done.

Thanks to Cumberbatch’s ever growing fame, Fathom Events and the National Theatre Live have brought this out 2011 production for rebroadcast multiple times now. I can only hope that there is now a chance it will one day be offered on DVD (with both versions on it). It is, without a doubt, truly transformative theatre. Rarely have I seen something so magnificent. It is an excellent commentary on the role of responsibility in science, in the role of a parent, and the true nature of good and evil. We are how we treat others, and with this production, the true horror is humanity.

You can find out more about the production from the National Theatre’s website.