As the bell rang next to me (making me jump out of my seat and scream) and the lights darkened for the “Cumberbach as the Doctor” version of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, I was fascinated by the big glowing circle at the middle of the stage. It seemed made of skin or parchment, and had the shadow of a human figure inside. It seemed … egg like, somehow. Oh my God, were we about to see Lady Gaga?
No such luck, I’m afraid, as when the skin finally tore, it was the scarred, naked body of Jonny Lee Miller that fell onto the stage. We were then treated to about ten minutes of watching him twitch and stumble while a curtain of incandescent lights overhead glowed and glared and flickered in a nice simulation of waves of electricity animating our monster’s frame. He was gaining control of his body, in preparation for heading into society and finding … well, just what would it be?
I’m afraid to say that despite the rather spectacular staging, Mr. Miller had falled, as if by accident, into a rather bad play. As a fan of Romantic literature, I really enjoyed the examination of basic questions such as, “Is man by nature good or evil?” “What is the influence of society on creating character?” “What does it mean to be human?” Most of these really exciting philosophical issues were undertaken by The Monster, who I think made a strong argument for being the most human character in the play.
Sadly, the rest of the characters fell flat, though The Blind Old Man (played by Karl Johnson) who teaches The Creature about philosophy was at least enjoyable in his scene. But Dad Frankenstein (George Harris) was positively wooden and Ella Smith (as “prostitute” and “maid”) was painfully bad (yes, darling, you’re projecting to the back of the Olivier, but I suspect the commuters at Waterloo might have been able to feel your performance as well). I’m going to blame the script for some of this, as Dr Frankenstein’s Fiancee (Naomie Harris) seemed emotionally believable … well, mostly … but was weighted by dreck dialogue.
With a sold-out run, I fear that most of the punters are actually coming to see Mr Sherlock Holmes himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, in his various turns as monster and mad scientist. If this is the case, I think you may enjoy his Creature, as it will ensure you get an eyeful of his kit and tackle. I found his Victor Frankenstein stiff and cartooney. It’s not a sympathetic character to play, I grant: in the end, he, with his desire to have the power of life and death and lack of concern for other people (living, dead, or both) comes off looking like the real monster. Still, mightn’t a better actor have pushed this role to show some sort of conflict that would have made him more interesting, if not sympathetic?
The clunky script is compensated somewhat by really powerful and at times deliciously stark staging, from the steampunk train to the Live! Fire! on stage to the glittering green gaze of polar sky at the end, as the lightbulbs somehow became curtains of ice and Northern Lights at the same time. And I have to say I admire a play that is so focused on the narrative and philosophy of the original novel. That said, we’re two centuries beyond the original, and purely symbolic characters that talk in morality soundbites are not the fashion either on stage or in literature. This could have been so much better and Nick Dear’s script is 80% to blame for this poor result. Without an interval, you’re stuck pushing through the very long two hours without a hope of relief; I have to say, I admired the two women who walked out the center aisle of the stalls, just in time to have Cumberbach point at them and say, “Look down there! Little men!” Rarely has an exit been so pointedly (if inadvertently) mocked by the great … and envied by me.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, February 14th, 2011; the official opening day is the 22nd AND 23rd of February. The show runs through Sunday April 17th and is supposedly sold out for the run; however, there are always some returns so if you’re determined to see this, keep checking back daily for returns for the next few days. Note the women who walked out were allowed back IN to the auditorium … with drinks. Now this was MY Paradise Found.)