National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 22/23 February, 2011

It’s amazing how a simple rope can connect an audience with a stage.  The Olivier Theatre can be an alienating space for viewers, so Danny Boyle on his return to theatre direction had the masterly idea of simply hanging a bell-rope down into the central aisle. Every so often as we enter, an actor tolls it, but the rest of the time we are perfectly at liberty to give it a ding ourselves.
Space, scale and connection inform Boyle’s approach to the classic tale throughout. The performance proper (two hours without interval) begins with a blinding flash of light from an enormous array of light blubs covering about half of the ceiling; this, and its repetitions, are the electric charges that jolt the Creature into life as it falls out of a huge membranous pouch. The next five or six minutes consist of its trying to stand; briefly, Victor Frankenstein enters, is shocked to see the Creature and flees; then suddenly a great steampunk engine enters on rails, and all is noise and smoke.
It seems as if we are to be treated to an impressionistic montage version of the story, but matters gradually assume greater narrative coherence as the Creature’s own powers of apprehension develop. For Nick Dear’s adaptation is very much the Creature’s story. Victor’s life and the background to its creation are excised, referred to only fleetingly much later; so, too, we see at some length the Creature’s friendship with and education by the blind old man De Lacey, normally compacted to a single scene in screen adaptations. Here, however, this process is the grounding of the Creature’s awareness of himself, his thoughts and feelings, his place in the world or lack of it.
Apart from Boyle’s return to stage work, the major selling point of this production is the central casting, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating in the two main roles; the National Theatre therefore held two successive press nights. Miller finds a remarkable physical language for the Creature: not Karloff-lumbering, but at once graceful and unnatural, as if no movement comes to him by instinct. Cumberbatch’s Victor has the same dissociated obsessiveness as his recent TV Sherlock Holmes; it is little surprise that his bride Elizabeth (Naomie Harris) bonds more in a few minutes with the Creature than Victor has in years of engagement to her. And in one illuminating moment, when Victor affects to test the Creature’s human capacities by asking it what love is before he agrees to build a mate for it, it is clear that Cumberbatch’s Victor is listening to a description that he has never himself had the understanding to form.
When they swap roles, the nature of each actor leads to a slight diminution of power: Miller’s fieriness and physicality render Victor less fascinatingly detached, whereas Cumberbatch’s more cerebral approach attenuates the alienness of the Creature’s movements and allows him to grasp matters of abstract reasoning a little too readily. But what Boyle has done with visual flair and conceptual bravado is to create a compelling account of two men and the bond between them, or one man and one shell, and not necessarily the way round that one would assume.
Dear’s adaptation cleaves more closely to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel than any familiar film version, although it also excises a number of major characters and plot strands entirely. And film designer Mark Tildesley’s revolve-centred set would fill any West End venue if, say, War Horse were to be put out to pasture any time soon.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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