The weight of expectation on this production is immense chiefly because, on paper, it’s a combination of talent and ideas that feels simultaneously fresh and defiantly classic. In short, it seems to represent exactly what the National does so well and what it set out to achieve back in the 1970s. Sadly, like the Creature itself, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein is somewhat inconsistent: prone to flashes of greatness, but ultimately a flawed masterpiece.
The sense of palpable disappointment is particularly heightened by that fact that, at the centre of the show is a towering performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. Whilst I was a fan of his recent work I did have Cumberbatch pegged as someone with little range beyond the proud, the haughty and the academic; I therefore relished the opportunity of seeing him play Frankenstein opposite Jonny Lee Miller’s rough and ready Creature. As it was the roles were reversed at last night’s preview and Cumberbatch proved just what a versatile, hypnotic stage actor he is.
The opening sequence, set in media res by Nick Dear, is a breathtaking vision of creation that makes excellent use of Mark Tildesely’s wildly inventive set. As the Creature finds his feet in our alien world Cumberbatch’s unflinchingly physical performance is both captivating and pitiful. From this moment on, in an odd reflection of Shelley’s text, it is only when the Creature is on stage that the show comes to life, the cast of characters in the world around him serve only to the drag production down.
Whilst Miller captures the wild, unstoppable nature of Victor his supporting cast are, by turns, oddly miscast and under-rehearsed. Though an audience would expect the success of a production of Frankenstein would hang on its Creature, how much they believe in the world he is born into and how its inhabitants react to him is equally important as it is here that Shelley’s story finds its substance. Unfortunately Boyle’s ensemble cannot maintain any sense of drama or pace and scenes of horror and high emotion quickly descend into farce. Scenes such as the discovery of the Creature’s victims are conducted in a workman-like fashion that eventually saw the audience filling the silences, between feigned cries of terror and disconnected dialogue, with peals of laughter.
Naiomi Harris’ Elizabeth Lavenza is not helped by an under-written role, but her performance throughout is slow and overly theatrical while George Harris’ M. Frankenstein appears totally detached from what is unfolding around him. From the first pantomime reactions to the Creature’s appearance the ensemble cast appear as stiff caricatures seemingly intent on dissolving any energy built up by Cumberbatch; Karl Johnson’s De Lacey and John Stahl’s Ewan are the only characters that seem to fully connect with the action.
Just like the source material Nick Dear’s script is inventive in its structure, but he makes some bizarre diversions and, whilst the scenes between the Creature and Frankenstein convey some of Shelley’s pre-occupation with creation, free will and man’s responsibility to man, elsewhere more modern exchanges between lesser characters feel stilted and overwrought. The same is true of Boyle’s direction which is firing on all cylinders during the scenes featuring the Creature but seems too piecemeal in others. Scenes such as the Creature’s first entrance into society lurch from comedy to music hall to drama to horror with same awkward movement as the monster itself. Despite his theatrical pedigree, and the fact that Boyle is the master of mixing style and tone in the cinema, here it feels mishandled.
This is not the triumph everyone expected but a muscular production that, I imagine, will be remembered for individual triumphs such as Cumberbatch and Miller’s performances, Underworld and Ed Clarke’s innovative sound design and Tildesely’s stunning set. Things will no doubt improve as the run continues but, as a whole, Frankenstein fails to reproduce the power of the text it adapts; much like Victor’s experiment, it feels like Boyle is only half in control of his creation.