'Frankenstein' review or 'The one where they switch roles'

National Theatre, Wednesday 23rd February 2011

A diaphanous egg-like structure, attached to a hefty wooden frame, stands on a barren Olivier stage that swarms with red:

A terrifying thought flashes through one's head: is this Lady Gaga back in her  egg from the Grammys? Is the National audience really her key demographic? And would she really wear the same outfit TWICE?

In fact, the type of monster to emerge from this strange, throbbing womb depends on which night you visit. As nearly everyone knows by now, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller are alternating between the roles of man and monster. The programme notes suggest this gimmick is to reinforce the supposition that these two roles are in fact one; that the monster is merely a reflection of Frankenstein's inner demons. I'm not convinced and it isn't an interpretation pushed all that heavily in director Danny Boyle's otherwise mesmerising production. What I do know is that this trick generated, in most instances, double length reviews - and that's the kind of doubling any theatre loves.

On the night I attended, Cumberbatch played Frankenstein's monster. And good god, did he put his back into it. And his arms. And his mouth. In fact, every single limb and every pulse seemed twisted and turned towards Cumberbatch's singularly committed performance. The first twenty minutes of this show witness the monster's agonizing birth and it is a deliciously agonizing sight. It is hard to say if Cumberbatch's monster is struggling to live or yearning to die. What is obvious, however, is the tremendous effort it takes just to be human, to be one of us:

Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature (Photo credit: Catherine Ashmore)
Cumberbatch lets off a dazzling array of anguished grunts and squeals. Sometimes it sounds like those rasping breaths are doing him good and, at other times, it seems those sounds are piercing his heart and destroying his body. Yet, despite the cruel pain of this lonely birth, there is great tenderness here too. Cumberbatch shows us what it is to be human. When he finally stands, he grunts in appreciation; what a simple pleasure it is to be upright! When he walks, he seems instantly more dignified. And when the monster runs, he positively squeals with pleasure. This investigation into humanity is swiftly amplified by Boyle with a spectacular 'nature' montage. We watch the monster delight in the simple pleasures of human existence. He bleats out in wonder at the setting sun, strains to hear the birds twitter, chomps on some luscious-looking grass and revels in the rain:

This aching openings lends a fragility to the monster that Cumberbatch maintains throughout. We never forget, despite the atrocities which follow, that he was once a delicate and awe-struck 'baby'.  Indeed, when the monster finally curls up in his creator's arms, as the two head into a sunless North Pole sky, he looks nascent again. At risk of sounding cheesy,  the monster looks like he has finally found his mother.

There is such authority and dignity to Cumberbatch's performance and, when he is present,  the play throbs with purpose and meaning. However, when he stalks off-stage, the demons of this production surface. The biggest problem is Nick Dear's script which, though it brilliantly nails the key moments, sometimes sounds stark and over-accented. There are lots of short, sharp scenes and it is left to the director to fill in the bigger picture. Thankfully, Boyle is (most of the time) very good at this. At one point, the back screen yawns open, smoke billows out and a monstrous, churning contraption steams towards the front of the stage. The noise it makes is hideous and the sparks it emits, threatening. In all its glorious horror, it predicts the later admonishment from Frankenstein's wife: 'You've meddled with the natural order and bought chaos – all because you worship electricity and gas.'

Although Dear's strident script lends a great zip to the show, it also creates weaknesses. The peripheral characters feel just that and Frankenstein's father (George Harris) and fiancee (Naomie Harris) are as limp as the monster's dead bride. This is tricky, because  most of the highly charged, emotional moments, are channelled through these characters. They are scenes that hit hard in the novel - but barely register on-stage. When Frankenstein's young brother is killed, the father barks out, 'My son. He is dead.' It's hard to work up much sympathy. And, when Frankenstein's fiancee is killed, Miller's wails don't really travel.

In fact, Miller's performance feels a touch limited throughout. Perhaps the stiffness of the monster is bleeding into his turn as Frankenstein? Regardless, there is something underpowered and almost lacklustre about Miller's doctor. Frankenstein is a man throbbing with self love and ruinous ambition - a lot like Faustus. He should positively pulse with intelligence but hopeless naivete, too. I suspect that Cumberbatch - a household name because of his quirky but bold take on Sherlock Holmes - would be better suited to this prickly and complicated role. 

It is odd but impressive that the most nuanced, most human performance comes from Cumberbatch as the monster. Never again need one imagine this mind-blowing creation as a lumpen lurch with bolts in his head. Instead, he is a man - albeit a patchwork of dead bodies - with an unquenchable but impossible lust for life.


  1. I think this is my favourite review of Frankenstein (and, yes, I've read 'em all). Nice work.

    Perplexed as to why no one has mentioned Spinal Tap in relation to the opening sequence, however...
    (this might be the video of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vbi5Zegp55o - annoyingly all Spinal Tap content is blocked on German YouTube thanks to more fierce copyright laws)

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Sorry, just inadvertently delete my comment. Here it is....

    I saw both versions via NT Live last week. Your review really captured the essence of Cumberbatch's performance of the Creature, especially this part:
    "Indeed, when the monster finally curls up in his creator's arms, as the two head into a sunless North Pole sky, he looks nascent again. At risk of sounding cheesy, the monster looks like he has finally found his mother." That's how I felt when I saw it as well. I like your sketches a lot, very vivid. If there's no misunderstanding to your first sketch, you were trying to show the Creature's finger movement when he was in the womb, am I right? Great review! Thanks!


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