The Theatreguide.London Review
In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic
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
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
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.
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
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
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
that Victor appears only very briefly in the first hour, and his is
clearly the supporting role even when he gets more stage time.
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
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
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
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.
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