Arts

Frankenstein – The Olivier, The National Theatre

Julia Armfield reviews the National Theatre's new production of Frankenstein. And doesn't shriek. At all.

So you know how every so often you see the best show you’ve ever seen in your entire life? No? Right then.

Frankenstein is one of those stories, like Dracula or the apparently endless adventures of Batman, which has long since become the property of public imagination. From Boris Karloff’s iconic bolts through the neck to Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder tap dancing to Putting on the Ritz, the name “Frankenstein” is one which conjures up a wild array of Hollywood tropes and popcorn moments without necessarily recalling the bleak, mythic morality-tale upon which all this is based. Danny Boyle’s daring new production, based on a new adaptation of the novel by Nick Dear and featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller rotating the two lead roles, brings the story right back to its grounding origins in Milton and mythology, drawing a line only pencil-thin between philosophy and horror as it reshapes Shelley’s fable on the “Modern Prometheus”.

The adaptation itself spins the story on its axis, throwing the audience in at the very point of the Monster’s creation and effectively altering the sympathetic slant by not even introducing the rather more narrative-friendly figure of Victor for a good half hour. The focus, throughout this first section, is all on the trials of the Monster, cast adrift in a hellish industrial world that is given a brutal immediacy by a beautifully-conceived set and some fantastically steampunk flourishes. The Monster’s journey is a visceral discovery of the world and humanity, dominated throughout by a tangible injustice that is, at times, heart-wrenchingly immediate. The scene in which the Monster, now literate after a year’s worth of lessons with a blind man (Karl Johnson), is chased and beaten by the blind man’s family is pivotally tragic, presenting a very clear indication of the ways in which society shapes action and morality. The Monster, now an articulate, thinking scholar of Milton, sets fire to the blind man’s house with a devastating howl of “I sweep my revenge” and burns his family alive, effectively destroying another portion of his own humanity, yet only as a response to everything he has, in a sense, been taught.

The dilemma of responsibility and the metaphor of God and creation is well-documented here. The candle-filled canopy that overhangs the auditorium throughout is a constantly-flaring memory of life and Victor’s experiments. Victor is, in himself, a far colder and potentially more frightening character than the monster; the abandoning creator one whose head the sins of his creature must presumably fall. Even when the Monster’s actions turn to murder, and even the rape of Victor’s fiancé (Naomie Harris), the audience is still more disgusted by Victor’s dismissal of the Monster’s humanity on their first spoken encounter. “You were an experiment” he claims of the talking, thinking figure before him, and the Monster’s subsequent and increasingly depraved acts seem little more than the learned behaviour of a character without a higher moral guardian to turn to.

Not to claim more cultural integrity than I am necessarily due, I will state off the bat that one of my main priorities on booking this show lay, from the start, in the prospect of seeing Cumberbatch flouncing around in a tailcoat like a fraise-blonde fulfilment of all my weirdest fantasies, but I honestly have to state that Jonny Lee Miller’s performance, as the Monster, was one of the most compelling I have encountered in recent years. From his first appearance, bursting naked from a vertical frame into a sustained, spasming progression of painful, electric movement, Miller’s power lies in the visceral fearlessness of his performance, charting the Monster’s journey from mumbling, monstrous man-child to well-spoken, educated murderer with a fluidity that is, at times, mesmerising. Physically shorter than Cumberbatch, he nevertheless imbues the Monster with a tangible notion of alarming strength and a definite hint of Satanic menace behind his status as victim that somewhat muddies the moral waters. Cumberbatch, meanwhile, though the role of Victor necessarily allows for less showboating, is coldly magnetic and throaty-voiced; a ticking time-bomb of hubristic genius that manifests itself in sudden explosions of violence, rage and shocking bursts of something that is, in its way, far more inhumane than anything of which the Monster is capable. When the Monster, on raping and killing Victor’s fiancé, declaims “I am human”, one can look at Victor and almost understand. As actors, the two are never in competition, rather buoying one another up as they present two inextricably linked figures, bound together in a single presentation of humanity and evil. The final scene; ripping the two away from society and throwing them into an endless chase through an icy wilderness; is both disturbing and emotional. The Monster’s grief, despite everything, on thinking Victor dead is shattering; the instinctive response to the loss of a creator and the loss of self, and the script leaves the audience filled with thoughts of what might have been as the Monster states how much he would have loved Victor if only he had treated him well.

Frankenstein is a production unlike any I have witnessed in a very long time. It is a consummate performance, incorporating every aspect of the Olivier’s not-inconsiderable theatre-space and showcasing the talents of two remarkable actors to devastating effect. The almost immediate standing ovation in response to Miller and Cumberbatch’s curtain call is something I will not forget in a hurry, although I doubt I’ll have to wait long to witness it again since, in case you were wondering, I’ve booked out all the remaining tickets, stalls and circle, for the rest of the run. So do your worst. I’m not handing them over.

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