Review – Frankenstein, National Theatre

There are some plays that you just know are going to be big. And they don’t come much bigger than Oscar winner Danny Boyle directing Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch in the biggest theatre of them all, that big old barn the Olivier. The twist here is, in case you’ve been under a rock for the last few months, that Miller and Cumberbatch (hereafter “Milberbatch”) will alternate roles each evening, with one of them playing Frankenstein and one of them playing his creation, the Creature. Bottom line: you basically have to go see the play twice.

Unless you go during previews that is, when even two evenings in the Olivier won’t guarantee you to see both versions because, during the long preview period – it doesn’t open until 22 February – no day-by-day casting will be announced. So if you’re really desperate to see Jonny Lee Miller parading around as the Creature then you have to book for several evenings and hope for the best. (This is, of course, an entirely academic discussion – you can’t book for any evening because it’s sold out now until mid April)

Anyway, enough about the difficulties facing us poor bloggers as we navigate the casting. What of the play? Suffice to say that I think the National might have a hit on their hands here. Because it really is very very good.

Nick Dear‘s new adaptation feels true to Mary Shelley’s text, but has been subtly sharpened to bring out the modern nuances and dramatised in to what actually turns out to be a very compelling and tightly plotted play.

The first third of the play undoubtedly belongs to the Creature. It’s not until almost ten minutes in that we see another person on stage and there’s not much in the way of plot or dialogue for really quite a long time. Of course, it’s not a problem because the Creature (in this case Cumberbatch) is a pleasure to watch: half wide-eyed toddler, half feral animal and half terrifying monster, this is a genuinely scary and genuinely compelling character. Nevertheless, I did begin to worry that – pleasant as Mr Cumberbatch’s crawling and stumbling was – the plot didn’t really feel like it was moving anywhere.

This all changes with the introduction of Frankenstein, after which the plot whips along nicely and the true intelligence of the play is revealed – it is precisely because we spent so much time watching the aimlessness and innocence of the Creature in the beginning that his actions in the rest of the play both make sense and are so terrible. From here on in there is scarcely a pause between bouts as the two characters duel it out through wonderful scene after wonderful scene. The denouement is anything except cathartic, and diverges from the book in a crucial detail, but it works wonderfully and brings out perfectly what this play is really about: not telling the story of Frankenstein or telling the story of his creature, but telling the story of their relationship.

Even standing alone, Nick Dear’s adaptation would rank as a very good play. When coupled with Boyle’s direction and the technical finesse of the Olivier theatre, it becomes – even on this second preview – truly excellent. This is a play which uses every inch of the National Theatre’s technical capability, but not just because it can (Cf. Mother Courage) or to cover weaknesses in the text (Cf. Greenland) but because it’s the right choice for the play. The vast drum stage of the Olivier is so often a gimmick, but here it is entirely appropriate (even if it malfunctioned slightly during this early preview performance – earning the stage manager’s apology the biggest applause of the evening) as scenes shift effortlessly and elegantly.

Boyle also delivers some superb coups de theatre which owe nothing to the technical prowess of the space and everything to good old fashioned clever direction. I have heard audiences gasp before, but never before have I heard such genuinely terrified and prolonged screams in a non-pantomime as I did in the penultimate scene tonight. (Be warned that the impact of this particular shock is muted somewhat if you are sitting in the far left of the auditorium. But fear not: I am writing to Messrs Hytner and Boyle to suggest that they stop being so stingy with the fabric budget and I have full confidence that by the time opening night comes around this will scare the bejesus out of you no matter where you’re sitting.)

There is no other theatre in the country (in the world?) which could have risen to this challenge in terms of technique, scale or the quality of the cast and creative team involved. This is why we have a National Theatre.