Updated: Feb 14, 2022
Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein Live at the National Theatre, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, tells the classic tale of life and death, as well as ignorance in the face of evolution. From the very instant that the Creature (played by Cumberbatch in my version) bursts its head out of its own man-made womb, I was captured. What succeeds this moment is essentially an uncut 20-minute sequence depicting birth and a life’s first exploration into the world, captured through a body that begins in flat broken and rigid movements in Cumberbatch’s full-body performance, which gradually transforms itself into a fruitful being, trying to learn about its place in the world. The play’s latter half displays quite the opposite, following the story through Frankenstein’s perspective, with Frankenstein, at first full of masculine flames, nearing his wedding only for his journey to end precisely where it began.
With Frankenstein being such a classic and well-renowned tale, a given interpretation should fight for a reason to exist rather than be a simple retelling of a story embedded in pop culture. And Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein sure deserves to exist. There are some set pieces to be found on the wide London stage, but for the most part, the stage is kept minimal with a focus on the powerful performances that capture the audience on their own without the need for big production. The play is Shakespearean in its critically sharp scenes, driven mainly by its gripping monologues and performances. The Creature and Frankenstein are alone together in debate with each other for large portions.
While I find there is a lack of material that meets the same standard as the Creature for Miller as Frankenstein, it’s the Creature's show, and Cumberbatch swallows the stage whole when he's present. The unequal distribution of power does affect the balance of the production as it tends to be quite reliant on the Creature’s character progression as opposed to the absence of Frankenstein’s change.
There’s a strange starkness to Benedict Cumberbatch as an actor that has me enraptured in his performance no matter what he does, but I find his command even more pronounced when he’s onstage as opposed to film. While he can certainly be a film actor, bringing human characters to life in The Imitation Game, it’s the mysticism and expressive performance as Smaug in the Hobbit trilogy that is most engaging; and those abilities are certainly brought to the forefront here in his tour de force of a performance in Danny Boyle's Frankenstein.
Both complete filmed versions of the play, featuring both Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature are available on the National Theatre YouTube channel until 7th May UK Summer Time.