It's hard to imagine a young woman, not yet out of her teens, managing to write something as gruesomely dark and provocative as 'Frankenstein'. And what makes the work more striking and significant is that it was written in the early part of the nineteenth century when science was in its infancy, but already making staggering discoveries thanks to equally gruesome experimentation.
Mary Shelley was just 18 when she began the short story which was to become 'Frankenstein'. Two years later, it was published and in 1823 the first stage version opened at the English Opera House. Ever since, the 'Frankenstein' phenomenon has been repeatedly re-conceived for both film and stage, and the title alone is enough to strike fear into the hearts of the most robust.
Though the love of terror may well draw people to stage and film versions of 'Frankenstein', this new adaptation by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle eschews extreme terror in favour of examining the story from The Creature's point of view. But there are shocks in store. For example, even before the play begins, a huge bell positioned over the vast Olivier auditorium, tolls out its macabre message, signalling impending doom and, almost literally, making one jump out of one's seat.
Adopting a unique and brave approach, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller have the unenviable tasks of alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and The Creature. On this occasion, Benedict Cumberbatch was The Creature, producing a staggeringly mesmerising performance.
The play starts with The Creature's birth. From a large, round, makeshift womb centred on the stage, The Creature suddenly bursts out,writhing about and jerking uncontrollably as electricity is repeatedly passed through its body. The scene is both enormously emotional and a hugely compelling piece of acting by Benedict Cumberbatch. The scene continues with The Creature struggling to adjust to his environment and his physical capabilities. Eventually, he gets to his feet which enables him to enhance his mobility and survey his world. Victor Frankenstein, though, is revolted by his creation and promptly abandons it to fend for itself.
The Creature proves to be a quick learner – perhaps a little too quick to be realistic, but necessary to make progress through the story. What The Creature learns almost immediately is that humans find him repulsive, and are equally quick to attack him or drive him off. Only a blind man shows any kindness towards him by teaching him about speech, life and art. But once The Creature has more knowledge he realises his desperate isolation. So he seeks out his creator to persuade him to create a female companion for him.
Jonny Lee Miller is the obsessive, icy scientist, Frankenstein, who puts his work before family and love, and who ultimately is inextricably bound to his creation as The Creature is to him. Mr Miller provides the perfect counter-balance to Mr Cumberbatch's brilliantly described Creature. And there's fine support from the entire company. I particularly enjoyed Mark Armstrong as a young crofter, Rab, who constantly corrects his uncle Ewan (John Stahl) providing a touch of humour in what is largely a tense and serious drama.
There are few theatres where a production on this scale could be effectively realised. But the National Theatre has done more here than merely assemble resources. It's mustered all its formidable creative ingenuity to produce staging that is breathtakingly effective. Set designer Mark Tildesley has wrapped the entire stage and much of the auditorium in white cardboard, or paper-mâché, and the Olivier's magnificent drum revolve is enlisted to deliver interior scenes. And lighting designer Bruno Poet has created a hugely complex and beautiful lighting installation over the apron and front section of the auditorium to provide the stunning effects for the electric shocks The Creature is subjected to during its birth. But there are plenty of other gadgets on display including a rail mounted cutting machine that trundles almost into the audience, symbolising the more practical applications of science.
Danny Boyle's powerful and innovative vision makes us look afresh at the relationship between Frankenstein and The Creature. Essentially, these two are different sides of the same coin – which is what I suspect Mr Boyle imagined when asking his leads to alternate their roles. But Mr Boyle also asks us to re-examine our relationship with both science and other human beings – an uncomfortable, but nonetheless therapeutic exercise. All of which demonstrates that there's much more to this riveting and awe-inspiring production than mere technical effects. Like the brilliant science it portrays, it's virtuoso stuff.
"What you get in Danny Boyle's production and Nick Dear's adaptation of Mary Shelley's mythic fable...is neither shlock nor satire. Instead it's a humane, intelligent retelling of the original story in which much of the focus is on the plight of the obsessive scientist's sad creation, who becomes his alter ego and his nemesis: it's rather like seeing The Tempest rewritten from Caliban's point of view. As a piece of staging, it is brilliant."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The National Theatre has a hit on its hands."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"For the most part, a mesmerising evening...Yet, despite the action and power of Messrs Lee Miller and Cumberbatch’s individual performances, the script often dragged.
Paul Callan for The Daily Express
"Extraordinarily haunting production."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Boyle sometimes lays on too many effects, and the dialogue in Nick Dear’s script is often drably pedestrian. But this is a memorable production and will doubtless be spoken of for years to come."
Patrick Marmion for The Daily Mail
" I can report that both versions are well worth seeing. Miller, however, strikes me as the more disturbing and poignant monster, while Cumberbatch undoubtedly has the edge as the scientist who is ultimately revealed to lack the humanity of the unhappy creature he has created. Either way, the show is a thrill...the most viscerally exciting and visually stunning show in town. "
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph