Theatre Review - 'Frankenstein'

Posted by Alexander Hay

An impressive production and two excellent rotating leads are electrifying.

Daddy issues aplenty at the National's new production of Frankenstein

Mention the name 'Frankenstein' and you would be forgiven for conjuring up an image of a rampaging, deformed monster without any feelings, out to kill every human being in sight. Indeed the name is synonymous with terror - at least that is the impression given by the many screen versions, most notably as portrayed by Boris Karloff and later embodied in the Peter Cushing/Hammer horror films of the 60s which provided a lucrative franchise for one small British studio.

But in Nick Dear's masterly new play for the National, entitled simply Frankestein (at the Olivier auditorium), which is more faithful to Mary Shelley's original 1818 Gothic novel, we see the story from the perspective of the Creature. The production also marks the return to the theatre of Oscar winning film director Danny (Slumdog Millionaire) Boyle.

This fresh take on a familiar tale begins in stunning fashion with a blind flash of light from a vast array of light bulbs covering about half of the ceiling and, after discerning the outline of a figure inside a large womb, the electric charges jolt the Creature into life as it emerges into the world as a bloody, scarred, naked man, writhing and groaning, before learning to sit up, stand, walk and run.

Childlike in his innocence but grotesque in form, Frankenstein's abandoned, bewildered Creature ventures forth into a hostile universe. Meeting with cruelty wherever he goes, the friendless creature, increasingly desperate and vengeful, determines to track down his creator and strike a terrifying deal. "Slowly I learnt the ways of humans: how to run, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master, I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learnt how to lie".

This taut, thrilling play embodies philosophy, pathos and deep intelligence as it confronts urgent concerns of scientific responsibility, parental neglect, cognitive development and the nature of good and evil. Furthermore, director Danny Boyle brings a strong visual flair to the production, no doubt gain from his time spent in the film industry. Indeed he manages to capture the spirit of the Industrial Revolution with milling, shrieking crowds, a steam engine which roars towards us on rails, emitting noise and smoke and the satanic mills spitting out a cascade of sparks. The music by the electronic duo Underwold also adds much to the atmosphere of the piece.

However it is the mesmerising central perfromances by Jonny Lee Miller (he alternates with Benedict Cumberbatch as creator and created, but at the performance I attended Cumberbatch was indisposed) as the Creature; animalistic, primitive, physically expressive and breaking into a surprising eloquence as ideas and desires seize him, that gives this memorable production its real power. Daniel Ings, stepping in at the last minute, fully convinces as the obessesive, science-mad Victor Frankenstein, while Karl Johnson gives a standout performance as a blind old man who teaches the Creature to talk, read, thin and reason.

A disturbing play then but certainly the best so far this year.

Plays in repertory until April 17.

Box office: 0207 452 3000

Press: 0207 452 3333

By Laurence Green

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Alexander Hay

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