This last weekend I was lucky enough to see both performances of the National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the two main roles.
I am going to work on the assumption that you are all familiar with Mary Shelley’s classic novel, so no explanations of plot will be forthcoming.
Nick Dear’s play is brilliantly written. It stays true to the power and story of the novel, whilst adding touches that make it more than a mere gothic novel conceived on a dark and stormy night as a way to pass the time. His handling of the subject matter is deft and sure. making sure to leaven the darkness with a gentle sprinkling of humour.
Danny Boyle’s direction is out of this world. It’s clear he had a vision for this play and that it coincided with that of the playwright. The play is a visual feast. The womb from which the Creature emerges is fantastically done, and the drums mimicking a heartbeat makes it all the more powerful.
The Creature. Where to start? Benedict and Jonny came at the role from two totally different directions. Benedict’s Creature is a wounded thing. A fully grown human learning again how to walk, talk and think. His body movements at “birth” were much like someone with severe cerebral palsy. All twitches and spasms as the nerves go out of control. Jonny Lee Miller’s Creature was much more childlike. Sliding and crawling across the floor, giggling with joy as he discovers he can do something new. I think the most endearing sight was Jonny Lee’s Creature discovering his foot… by biting it like a toddler would! These differences made the rejection of the Creature by his creator, Victor Frankenstein, very different in each version of the play. When Jonny Lee Miller’s Victor runs from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Creature, you can almost understand his fear. When Benedict’s Victor runs from Jonny Lee’s Creature, it’s almost heartbreaking, as if he is abandoning a child.
Victor Frankenstein. Again, both men turned in two very different performances. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Victor is the more subtle performance. His Victor is quite gentle, so that when the madness comes, and the outbursts of anger, it is more shocking. Jonny Lee Miller’s Victor Frankenstein is basically a grumpy bugger all the way through. It’s a slow realisation that the character has basically gone insane. The shock value isn’t there. Benedict also added slight touches to the character that rounded him out more. Like when Victor’s fiancee Elizabeth is trying to persuade him to remain with her, and not go to Scotland. You can see Victor actually sizing her up as possible parts for the mate is his going to make for his Creature.
There are three scenes with the Creature and Victor Frankenstein that are brilliant beyond measure. The first is in Scotland where Victor first creates a mate for his Creature, then destroys her, breaking his word to the Creature, and setting in motion the tragedy that follows. Of the two performances, that of Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein is the better one. The Creature’s anguish is offset by Victor’s complete mental breakdown.
The second scene is the aftermath of the rape and murder of Victor’s bride Elizabeth by the Creature. In this one, I felt Benedict’s Creature worked better. His Creature was filled with pain, whilst Jonny Lee’s Creature was filled with hate. That shifted the dynamic of the scene enormously. The rape and murder was less graphic with Benedict than with Jonny Lee, which may have affected my opinion on the matter.
In the same scene when Jonny Lee’s Victor is saying he can bring Elizabeth back, you don’t get the full realisation of what has actually happened. With Benedict’s Victor there is the horrified realisation that he used Elizabeth as bait to bring the Creature to him, and that he is finally and irrevocably insane!
The last scene is the final one in the arctic as Victor pursues his Creature to the ends of the earth. By this time it has become obvious that both creator and created are completely insane and are destroying each other.
A few comments on other characters and the actors who played them. Special mention is due to Ella Smith who played the Frankenstein’s maid, Clarice. A small role, but a good one. The character reminded me a little of the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. A privileged servant with the right to say what she thinks.
George Harris was interesting as Victor’s father. The chemistry with Jonny Lee wasn’t as good as the chemistry with Benedict, and this affected the performance quite a lot. I could believe he cared about Benedict’s Victor, but got the feeling that Jonny Lee’s Victor just annoyed the crap out of him.
Finally, Mark Armstrong who played the young crofter, Rab. This character was a nice little piece of comic relief in a particularly dark part of the play. Mark Armstrong played Rab to perfection.
Having watched and enjoyed both performances I have to say that, in my opinion, Benedict Cumberbatch was the better Creature, but, the performance that worked best was the one with Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein. In this performance they balance each other, making it more obvious that each man is the alter ego of the other.