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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

National Theatre At Home and YouTube  Spring 2020

In 2011 the National Theatre produced a stage version of Frankenstein written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle. As an experiment the two main roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature were shared by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, switching parts on alternate nights.

The NT recorded both versions for its National Theatre Live broadcasts to cinemas and now offers them free in its National Theatre At Home series and, for a limited time, on YouTube. In 2011 we reviewed the version with Miller as the Creature here, so I chose to watch the Cumberbatch-as-Creature version this year.

Nick Dear's major twist on audience expectations was to turn a horror story into a rumination on what it is to be human. With pointed irony he makes the Creature more sensitive, well-rounded and emotional than the coldly scientific Victor (or, indeed, any other humans except for the Blind Man and Victor's fiancée Elizabeth), and puts the focus on the Creature's pain.

A remarkable opening sequence shows the Creature emerging from a shape that is half-egg half-womb (set design by Mark Tildesley) and floundering around the stage like a helpless newborn. The almost soundless first fifteen minutes of the show watch him going through a rapid infancy, discovering his limbs and slowly mastering control of them as he first crawls and then awkwardly walks.

After a few unsuccessful encounters with people he meets the Blind Man, who takes him in and teaches him to speak and read. Soon he is quoting Milton at length, engaging in metaphysical and moral debates and becoming painfully aware of his own uniqueness and loneliness. He searches out Victor and demands the creation of a mate, but that experiment goes sour and sets the pair on a path of mutual destruction and damnation.

The play is so fully the Creature's that Victor appears only very briefly in the first hour, and his is clearly the supporting role even when he gets more stage time.

It would take parallel split-screen viewing to spot all the subtle differences between the two actors in the alternate versions. But without question Miller gives a softer and warmer reading to both of his characters,

Miller's Creature is defined by pain and longing, while Cumberbatch's is driven by an imperious righteous indignation. Cumberbatch's Victor is a naturally cold man whose personality feeds his scientific obsessions, while Miller's is an emotionally stunted and incomplete man, sometimes briefly sensing his own inadequacy as a human being.

The play doesn't allow us to shift sympathy from Creature to Victor, but the version with Miller as the scientist lets us catch a glimpse of a small tragedy in the man.

Few others in the large cast are given a chance to register, but Karl Johnson does his usual solid job in creating an instant characterisation as the Blind Man and Naomie Harris makes Elizabeth an attractively brave and complex woman.

The broadcasting process has some of the advantages and disadvantages of any move from stage to screen. Close-ups give the opportunity to appreciate the small details of performance that might be missed in the theatre, and the fact that there are rarely more than two or three people in a scene reduces the danger of the camera forcing our point of view and taking away our freedom to look where we want.

On the other hand the camera director Tim van Someren goes a little wild with jump cutting and skewed camera angles in the first half (He calms down later), making it sometimes difficult to tell what's happening or, literally, which way is up.

I should note that the play can be heavy going, as a result of its emotional intensity rather than any dullness, and you might want to take a break at the interval point.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Frankenstein - National Theatre At Home  2020