“Why did you make me?”
Perhaps one of the less-successful decisions I have made this year was to revisit Frankenstein at the National Theatre. There was a number of reasons: the opportunity to see Jonny Lee Miller take on the role of the Creature and directly compare and contrast him with Benedict Cumberbatch; it was the final performance of the run; it was actually the third time I had a pair of tickets to see the windy Miller – I’d passed on the other tickets to more receptive friends but given one last chance, I ended up biting the bullet in the spirit of perhaps finding something new in the production.
For I did see it much earlier in the run, you can read the review here, and I found it a most problematic play. And my opinion of it still holds firm after a second viewing, I find it simply astounding how forgiving the official reviews were of this show. For sure, the production values are at times sensational and a welcome shot in the arm for National Theatre stagings which will hopefully inspire more creativity in future productions. But the play itself is so terribly weak that to close one’s eyes to its many problems feels like an absolute crime and try as I might, I could not ignore them and try to focus on having a ‘good time’ as my companion attempted to admonish me.
In terms of the lead actors, Miller made for a more masculine, animalistic Creature and Cumberbatch a more cerebral Victor. Indeed this was the configuration I thought I wanted to see when the cross-casting was first announced but the casting for the previews was not pre-announced and so we were surprised on the evening with a lucky dip of sorts and I personally thought Cumberbatch was just sensational as the Creature. He made a more interesting set of choices and I was much more fascinated by his journey to enlightenment than I was with Miller’s. And perhaps predictably, Cumberbatch was able to make more of the limited role of Victor so in the final analysis I have to say I think my first experience, with the Cumbercreature and all his Cumberbits on show, was my favourite of the two versions (indeed I find it surprising that so many veered towards the windy Miller being their preference).
Around them though, my fears of the supporting cast remained as valid as they were when I first saw the show. Unable to rise above the paucity of the material, matters are exacerbated by some awful acting choices, colour-blind casting that is actively confusing (as I did on first viewing, my friend got terribly mixed up about the relationship between Frankenstein’s father and Mary) and a rushed feeling that means very few are able to create any meaningful presence onstage around the two leads.
It did strike me too as the oddest choice for the NT Live to show in cinema. Financially it makes perfect sense as it has to be one of their biggest hits in recent years, but so much of the production is about the sensory experience of being there, the glare and intense heat of the light fixture, the tolling of the bell, without these the play itself would surely become much more exposed and it is not something that could bear such scrutiny, as several commenters on the original review have attested. Oh well, at least I won’t have to see it again!