So thanks to the National’s rather wondrous policy of selling very good seats in the stalls in the Olivier for a paltry £12 I spent a rather lovely day on Saturday with friends watching the matinee and evening performances of Frankenstein at the National Theatre (and met the ever gracious Benedict Cumberbatch at the stage door even if rather embarrassingly he recognised me from my previous visit).
This was my first time seeing the alternate casting – Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature. The problem inherent with having alternate casting is that I spent most of the matinee focusing on the differences in the actors’ performances (and noting how the play had changed since I saw it in early previews). Which is of course unhelpful as you shouldn’t be comparing and contrasting the actors – each deserves to be judged on their own merits for their performances. I will be interested to see what the critics do in their reviews (press nights are tomorrow and Wednesday). They don’t have the luxury of an unlimited word count so I suspect we’re going to get reviews which just compare the two performances which seems terribly unfair to the actors.
So leaving aside the comparisons for a moment I was pleased to see that I enjoyed the show just as much with the alternate casting as I had done previously.
Jonny Lee Miller is superb as the Creature. His Creature is very child like and often heartbreakingly vulnerable. He plays him very much as an adult with the mind of a child – prone to bursts of anger and violence borne of frustration at his inability to communicate . The birthing scene is lovely and terribly well done. The Creature flops out of the womb and lies there eyes closed and blind while he gets used to his limbs – hands flapping wildly back and forth like a fish floundering out of water. There is a lovely moment where he picks up his foot and decides to put it in his mouth to taste it (a move I have seen countless babies do), it’s very cute. His unbridled joy when he does finally stand and runs around the room laughing as he does is incredibly infectious which of course makes Frankenstein seem like a profoundly heartless bastard when he promptly abandons his newborn “child” and runs away from him.
The whole of the opening 15 minutes where the Creature discovers the world around him is beautifully acted by Miller. His Creature lurches from one discovery to the next like a curious toddler (at one point facing the audience and babbling unintelligibly to them) shrieking with joy at the birds in the sky, indulging in comedy naked shivering when drenched in an unexpected shower, eyes opening wide with awe at the camp fire started by the men who eventually return to beat him and babbling with excitement at his first taste of food. It’s a really lovely and terribly sad scene as you know that the Creature’s joy at the world around him won’t last for long.
Miller’s scenes with Karl Johnson’s De Lacey are equally strong. The relationship is very much that of father/son with De Lacey teaching the Creature to read and write. Their interplay is sweet and rather touching. I loved the moment where the Creature sees snow for the first time and is completely transfixed his head bobbing up and down tracking the path of the snow as it lands before sneaking out to catch snowflakes on his tongue while De Lacey berates him for ignoring their studies. Small moments really resonated – De Lacey’s son and daughter in law (still rather acting as if they’re in a regional panto) mystified by the stranger helping them in their farming thank the “fairy folk” for helping them and entreat their mystery helper to come out and make themselves known to them while the Creature shyly slinks awkwardly very close to them before losing his nerve and running away.
The sequence where De Lacey’s son rejects the Creature actually made me wince. Miller’s Creature is terrified of meeting them, burying his head into De Lacey’s chest like a small child seeking comfort from a parent and trying to hide from their gaze before rather painfully stammering out a greeting to De Lacey’s son while bowing to him. The swift and inevitable rejection really hurts to watch as the terrified Creature screams out his anger before returning to seek his vengeance.
As before the best sequences by far in the play are those between the Creature and Frankenstein – their first meeting with the Creature sliding down the scaffolding at the side of the stage as they both stop and just stare at each other is suitably iconic. Whichever way around the casting Cumberbatch and Miller have stunning chemistry and you can’t help but wish the play had focused far more on their interaction.
Miller also works well with Naomie Harris. Their scene together when the Creature comes to her on her wedding night to seek vengeance for Frankenstein murdering his bride is both poignant and really rather horrible. The scene has been changed from the previous previews and morphed into something which is (rightfully) profoundly distressing. It starts on this lovely note of tentative friendship as Elisabeth almost immediately overcomes her distress at the Creature’s appearance and vows to be his friend and take up his part with Victor before unravelling swiftly into out and out horror. I confess I did feel that Jonny Lee Miller rather wasted his big speech about being taught how to lie, not quite hitting the dramatic beats that such a big moment offers but Harris’ reaction was distressing to watch. As Elisabeth realises that she is in mortal peril she starts to shake in distress, she then started crying before making a dash for it but being easily overpowered and thrown onto the bed by the Creature. The rape sequence is distressing with the struggling seeming to go on for what felt like an eternity. Victor bursts into the room but is so horrified by the tableau in front of him that he falls to the floor frozen while Elisabeth screams his name and reaches out to him. The moment where the Creature breaks her neck is horrifying as he turns her face to Victor’s so that they can see each other before brutally snapping her neck. The move was met with gasps of horror from both audiences on Saturday and you could have heard a pin drop after. Gone is the line that seemed to be prompting unintentional laughter from some (rather odd) audience members – the scene is now really quite distressing from beginning to end as the Creature having committed an absolute atrocity asserts his humanity (“I am a man”) before begging Victor to end his life, fleeing when he does not.
I particularly liked Miller’s final scene with Frankenstein. He starts confident and bombastic mocking the completely broken Frankenstein but resorts to being a lost child when he fears Frankenstein has died and left him, beseeching his master to return to him. It’s an excellent performance all round which deserves much praise.
And what of Cumberbatch as Frankenstein? The character is drawn as rather unsympathetic so neither actor can prevent him from being seen as the true villain of the play (this adaptation purely belongs to the Creature) but I thought Cumberbatch did a wonderful job of bringing life to a rather one dimensional character with a powerful nuanced performance.
We first see Victor as he trudges wearily down the aisle in the stalls towards the stage clad in a black apron (this has all been changed from previously where Victor very much ran on and off stage in moments). He sees the Creature motionless on the floor and assumes his experiment has been a failure and is startled when the Creature wakes and reaches out to him rearing back in horror. We see awe, horror, utter revulsion and fear cycle through his eyes in the space of a moment before he flees off stage leaving his Creature to his own devices.
Because of the uneven nature of the roles Victor doesn’t re-emerge again for the best part of an hour. He appears searching for his brother William (who has been taken and murdered by the Creature). On a purely shallow note mention should be made of Victor’s costumes which are beautifully tailored and both Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller look particularly splendid in them. Victor’s distress for his brother’s disappearance and his frustration at his friends failure to find him is palpable. I loved how you could practically see Victor turning white as the search party starts to speak nonsense about the “monster” that has been witnessed in the mountains – you get a real sense of impending doom which blossoms into full horror when William’s body is found. Cumberbatch played that sequence beautifully looked deeply devastated at the discovery of William’s body giving the scene an emotional resonance which it arguably otherwise lacks.
Cumberbatch also plays very well opposite Naomie Harris and they make an endearingly sweet pairing. His initial scene with her when she berates him for barely speaking to her when they are to be married and his befuddled realisation that he isn’t acting as he should as a prospective husband coupled with his awkward confession of “what if I haven’t anything to say?” was rather adorable. His Frankenstein is an intriguing mess of contradictions – sweet and awkward and yet breathtakingly arrogant and utterly confident in his own superior intellect. When he tells Elisabeth that she won’t understand his work as she is a woman you can tell that the prospect that she might be able to grasp the complexity of his work had never even occurred to him. Victor is incapable of separating his work from his personal life as illustrated by an effectively creepy moment when he tells Elisabeth that she will be a beautiful bride while looking at her arm with a scientist’s eye as if she was nothing more than a specimen to be carved up.
You still do rather wonder exactly what Elisabeth sees in Victor but Cumberbatch brings out Victor’s tender side – their kissing as he is set to depart to Scotland to build his Creature a bride is awkward, intimate and deeply tender at the same time and he looks at her with something akin to awe when she finally agrees to let him go. The scene on their wedding night is equally good as Victor confesses his crimes and Elisabeth cuts through all of his miserable justifications for his actions with a single “why?”. Its a thinly drawn partnership and Elisabeth more of a plot point that a character in her own right but Benedict Cumberbatch and Naomie Harris do an awful lot with skimpy material to make Victor and Elisabeth’s relationship seem real. His declaration of love (changed from the somewhat weak “I will try to love you”) as he leaves her to her fate is heartfelt and we mourn with him when Elisabeth is murdered.
The sequences of Victor and the Creature are the real show stoppers. In their first scene together Cumberbatch is hubris personified, delightedly crowing at the wonder of the Creature and his own magnificence in creating him before being shocked to silence when he realises that the Creature is capable of thought and speech. He goes from delight at his scientific achievement to pure rage in the flash of an eye attacking the Creature with a knife (and being easily overpowered) while he screams his distress and grief at the murder of his brother and wails in self pity about living in darkness every day since he made him. He falls to his knees in despair and closes his eyes as the Creature retells how he murdered the De Lacey family before apologising to the Creature, voice breaking for not realising that he would feel emotion. Cumberbatch displays an impressive emotional range in a rather short sequence. Victor cannot back down from the challenge the Creature sets him and is delighted at the prospect of building a bride, a beautiful creature that he can exhibit and use to illustrate his brilliance. I loved how throughout the scene you can see Frankenstein warming to the idea of the Creature as an audience for his brilliance – someone who recognises and acknowledges his superior intellect. Cumberbatch spits out with delicious venom the lines about being surrounded by “little people with little lives” – you never question that his Frankenstein is truly an unappreciated genius. There is a lovely moment after they have shaken hands to seal their bargain (and after the Creature departs telling his creator with an agonising lack of guile that he has made his dreams come true) where Frankenstein just looks at his hand clearly still astounded that he has created life.
After a virtuoso scene with the young actor who plays William in which Frankenstein details how he went looking for the spark of life as he wanted to know what it was to play God (I suspect the reviewers will lazily use the shorthand that he is very like Sherlock here which isn’t fair as they are very different performances but he does do troubled genius exceedingly well) the Creature visits Frankenstein to check his progress making him a Bride. Cumberbatch is breathtakingly cruel in this sequence – putting the Creature through agonies as Frankenstein tries to get the Creature to “prove” his love for his barely animated bride before brutally murdering her for fear that they will reproduce. The moment where he tenderly caresses the Bride’s naked form pulling her tight to him while taunting the Creature with the prospect that she might want a “real man” is incredibly hard to watch it’s so downright cruel. The Creature’s vengeance may be horrific but Victor bought his fate crashing down on his own head.
The wedding night sequence is devastating and when Victor walks in on them and freezes in distress barely able to lift the gun in his shaking hand it is painfully highlighted that poor Elisabeth is just a throwaway pawn in the events that are unfolding. The Creature barely takes his eyes off Victor as he enacts his vengeance – theres is as much a twisted love story as it is a tale of parental rejection.
Victor’s grief at Elisabeth’s death and his conviction that he can bring her back is beautifully realised as is his fury when his father questions the balance of his mind. Cumberbatch’s line reading of “My mind is superb” is stunning.
The final scene between them with Cumberbatch’s Victor utterly broken and pitifully confiding to his Creature than he knows nothing of love before they exit tied together for all eternity is very powerful. It’s a really strong performance.
In terms of which casting to see I think if you have a favourite actor of the two then if you see them as the Creature you will have a quite superb evening. Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are genuinely brilliant as the Creature. I was enormously impressed at how very different the two interpretations were. The birthing sequences are completely different – Cumberbatch much more agile, Miller more childlike. Cumberbatch’s Creature is slightly more ethereal and at times more malevolent than Miller’s who favours a more vulnerable child like interpretation. Miller doesn’t possess Cumberbatch’s impressive vocal ability or his talent for mimicry but they both do hugely impressive work. Neither sadly have any chemistry with George Harris as M Frankenstein but that can’t be helped.
It isn’t fair to compare their Frankenstein’s as I saw Miller’s interpretation very early in the run but I was impressed at how nuanced and subtle Cumberbatch’s performance was.
In terms of the play tweaks have been made and things tightened so it runs just short of 2 hours. Scene changes are far swifter and the small armies of stage hands now dress in a way which makes it look like they are members of the cast. The make up- already impressive (although whatever they used to cover up Jonny Lee Miller’s tattoos barely survived the opening sequence) has been changed again so that it looks much more raw and unpleasant – thick black sutures holding together ugly raw open wounds. There have also been other tweaks (such as the Bride now looking much more like the Creature when she first appears in the dream sequence with a bald skull cap covered in a smattering of hair and ugly prosthetics across her face) which serve to enhance the story.
I remain astounded at the bravura visuals (particularly the stunning moment where the steam train appears in a cloud of dry ice and sparks before the sequence morphs into a lively bar room scene) and the lighting is brilliant especially the ending where a sea of cold blues and greens give the impression of the Northern Lights hanging over the stalls as Victor and the Creature walk off in a sea of dry ice and cold bleak light to find the North Pole.
The show is reportedly extending for a couple of weeks and tickets are still available for the NT Live filmings on the 17th March and it is well worth getting a ticket to see. The acting is stunning, the visuals astounding and Danny Boyle’s directing audacious.Lets hope the critics agree. (I have a very cheap and probably dreadful seat on the Wednesday press night from which to gaze at the shiny celebs and hope that the critics find much to admire about it).