[Review] - Frankenstein, With Benedict Cumberbatch As The Doctor

[Authors note: My local cinetorium never passes up the opportunity to make a stupid mistake (they once played The Muppet Movie without sound. The entire thing, never stopped the film to fix their mistake. Theatre full of children, and silent Muppets). Every other theatre in the western world this week watched Cumberbatch as the Creature, but my theatre played the wrong version, with him as the Doctor. It doesn't effect my review much, I just wanted to vent.]
Courtesy of the National Theatre
Frankenstein has largely avoided the curse of many other early science fiction books, Dracula especially, in that it has never really become cliched. Perhaps because the creature and the doctor are so connected to the plot, it becomes difficult to divorce the two, unlike other monsters who can be freely removed from their literary backdrop and put into any situation. Frankenstein and the Creature must always walk the same path. And, because it is not as overtly sexual as Dracula, or as metaphorically bankrupt as 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, it tends to be under-adapted, one coming along every couple decades, but with no great frequency.

Perhaps this is why Danny Boyle's play seemed so refreshing, as it didn't feel to be treading over the same old ground. Or maybe it was because writer Nick Dear has found a new structure for the 189 year old story. Or maybe it was strength of the performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, performances that elevate what could have been a very cheesy sort of PR stunt into part of the structure of the play itself.

Hit the jump for the review.

Straight away, this is a different beast. Nick Dear has chosen, I think rather uniquely, to tell the story from point of view of the Creature (also called Adam). It is a startling change, once that from the first moment, throws you, and your expectations, off balance. And well it should, considering the story is nearing 200 years old, and is known, if not in fine detail, by most. Gone are the usual bits, of Frankenstein stealing bodies and building his creature, robbing the Doctor of his moments of certainty. The play begins with the Creature emerging from a womb, birthing the play as well as himself. The first half an hour or so is like watching the first three years of a child's life sped up, starting with flailing about on the floor like a caught fish, to learning how to walk, and talk. It is way of stripping the Creature of his monstrosities, so that we never look upon him as Karloff's monster (the image it most has to overcome in the eyes of the general public).

I don't know who made the decision to swap the actors in their roles, if it was intended in Dear's script, or if Boyle made the decision after he came on board. The script lends itself wonderfully to the idea, which is why I wonder, as the play works out like a balance beam. On one side, you have the transition of the Creature from monster to man, and on the other you have the deconstruction of Victor from man to monster. In the middle, acting as a fulcrum, is a superb dialogue between creator and creation, as both try to reconcile a fundamental shift in their world views. Outside of this scene, the differences between the two are as corollaries, with them on equal footing during this confrontation. Were it not for this scene (and some minor adjustments elsewhere), one might wonder if both roles could be played by the same actor. Now that would be something to see.

The play is broken into two sections, the first the education of the Creature by a kind blind man, who struggles to find his place in the world at the end of his life as the Creature struggles at his beginning. Here, the play concerns learning the philosophies and moralities of life, through liberal use of Milton. The Creature has known only pain and hate, and therefore sees these as the defining attributes of humanity. In one wonderful scene, when asked if he comprehends God, he replies, "Yes, but I sympathise with Satan." He is only cruel because humanity is cruel, and forces him to be cruel. The Doctor plays next to no role in this, appearing only as the precipitation that gets the story moving.

The second section concerns the sadness of the Doctor. When he first meet him, he has been in self-appointed exile for a year, and continues to slip down a slop of depression and self realisation, as the Creature reveals himself and revenges himself upon the Doctor. However, it's only after the Creature pronouncement of love, that he feels "all the life inside him bubbling up," that the Doctor realises he has none of that. His Creature, that he made out of dead things, can feel more truly and honestly then he himself can. It would be an old cliche, as actually spoken in the play, "the son becomes the father, and the father the son", but it feels here, because we never knew Victor during his pre-Creature moments, that the father was always the son. The Creature began wanting to better himself, and Victor was always arrogant enough to consider playing God. This section also contains most of the humour of the play, as it is only in absurdity and desperation that Victor turns to levity. In the Creature's lessons, there is no room for that.

In a pre-film feature, Nick Dear said he felt that Frankenstein was the first creation myth ever told that didn't involve a deity. It was man doing the creating, with no help from on high. In the modern day, it's considered the first science fiction book, a genre that concerns itself more with science and the creations of man, rather then some mystical force. As I watched the play, I could not help but think back to Prometheus last week, and how if Ridley Scott or Damon Lindleof had seen this play, that movie might have found a more solid tone or theme (the original book was called The Modern Prometheus, a reference to part of the Prometheus myth not concerning the theft of fire, but of his hand in the actual creation of man).

By the end, it is Frankenstein flopping on the floor like a gasping fish, and gone are nearly all traces of the Creature's limps and speech impediments. The transition is so smooth and well done, it actual took me by surprise, despite knowing it was coming. Which is down to performance. Miller's Creature is a child, "skilled in emulation", constantly acting and reacting as a child would. He wants everything, wants it immediately, and tends towards tantrum when he can't get it. He learns from observing, and takes on the worst traits of those around him. Miller himself is energetic and passionate, never stiff or disinterested. Even when the Creature is at his worst, his most human, you feel for him. By making this the Creature's story, by making him the tragic hero and Victor the villain, your heart breaks for him even when he kills. Cumberbatch is equally effective, never once letting you feel for Victor. His ego and his bravado make his suffering that much sweeter, and Cumberbatch can play bravado. His complete absence of heart, seen from his first moment on stage, makes the Creature's story that much darker. If he were born from this man, what chance did he have?

The staging was marvellous, if a little bizarre at first. A carpet of lights covered the ceiling, allowing for an array of light shows, as bold as lightning, and as subtle as a dim glow, was truly impressive. The centre stage able to rise, lower, and rotate, and every set in Victor's world built at a slight angle, to further drive home that something isn't right in the House of Frankenstein. The first act set pieces are by far the most impressive, a strange, cacophonous steam punk train that defies explanation, or a simple strip of grass able to convey the Creature's first encounter with nature. The Creature's sets were organic, natural, except for the train, which launches out of the stage, into the audience, violently and abrasively. Victor's were mechanical, built but only half completed. Even the sets drive home the point here.

If you didn't see it this week, you have two further chances, this Thursday and Saturday, so check your local listings, because it is well worth it.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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