After the first of the two first nights of Nick Dear’s Frankenstein – Jonny Lee Miller as the naked Creature, Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein, his inventor – I was thinking five stars. After the second first night – Cumberbatch as the Creature, Lee Miller as Frankenstein – I’d settled a bit grumpily into three star mode.
There’s no equal distribution of roles or revelation here, nothing comparable, for instance, to Richard Pasco and Ian Richardson sharing the king and Bolingbroke in Richard II for the RSC and finding symbiotic resonance in their flip-side fortunes.
Lee Miller is brilliant and moving as the Creature, Cumberbatch more interesting, more systematic, more graceful and much funnier; but the real difference is in the title role, who figures only after the extraordinary opening 40 minutes of nude writhing and Wayne Eagling-style thrashy modern choreography.
Cumberbatch is a superb Victor, a man who would be king, struck with hubris and self-importance, vile to women, academically impassioned, tragic and ridiculous; Lee Miller is a shadow in the role, badly wigged, unconvincing and unable to build up the lack of a strong script.
Danny Boyle’s return to the theatre as a director is a flashy, noisy, exciting affair, and his designer, Mark Tildesley, manages to make the Olivier look a different place, with a huge tolling bell (you can pull the rope as you take your seat), icy cladding for the Geneva Mountains, and a railway track with a fantastic irruption of a steam train to engulf the escaped Creature in smoke and iron-ware.
Although Boyle and Dear respect the 19th century origins of Mary Shelley’s great novel, they take confusing liberties with it, especially at the end, when, having reversed roles, the two protagonists slope off feebly across the tundra on a sled, the Creature daring his creator to destroy him. The scene needs much more writing; the first half, generally, is much better than the second (the show is played across two hours without an interval).
Still, the play is such a powerful metaphor of so many big topics: the Creation of Man, then his Rights, the uses of literacy, the ethics of scientific research, the duties of human bondage, that all this, along with its star casting, will prove a huge hit for the National. The theatre is boldly inhabited, even if it seems to lie in waiting for a definitive Peer Gynt (a great play the NT botched badly on this same stage).
The creation under duress of a naked mate for the Creature is eloquently conveyed by an elegantly starkers Andreea Padurariu, and her destruction is as shocking as that of Victor’s fiancée, beautifully played by Naomie Harris, though neither lead actor expresses why he should just sit there and watch.
The Olivier revolve is well used, there’s an overhead canopy of bulbs and shades in Bruno Poet’s full-on, flash-filled lighting plot, and a mixed bag of supporting performances. Karl Johnson is delightful as the blind old countryman who befriends the Creature and introduces him to Milton and Petrarch, and Ella Smith from Bedlam and Fat Pig, two of the most underrated new plays of recent years, is the new Patsy Rowland (and that’s a compliment) in a couple of small roly-poly roles.