Movie/Theatre: Frankenstein

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller
Directed By: Danny Boyle
Written By: Nick Dear (adaptation), Mary Shelley (novel)
National Theatre Live
3.75 stars (out of 5)


I'm not really looking at this in terms of a "review" so much as a meandering of thoughts. Over the past couple nights I've been to the local cinema, which showed first the "original casting" of this play, as filmed at London's National Theatre, and then (the second night) the "reverse casting." In an already rather heavy-handed adaptation, I find the gimmick of swapping actors somewhat precious and unnecessary in getting the point across, but so be it.

The original casting featured Cumberbatch as The Creature and JLM as his creator Victor Frankenstein. While I surely do understand the difference between acting on a stage and acting for the camera—I've worked in both media—I often have this terrible feeling Cumberbatch is showing off a bit. It works sometimes, for some characters, but can be a bit over the top at moments. The opening scene in which The Creature is "born" and learns to walk felt interminable as a result. But on the whole I'd say Cumberbatch did a fine job as a very physical actor in a very physical role.

Meanwhile, JLM played Frankenstein in such a straightforward way as to bring to my mind Colin Firth. (Since I like Colin Firth, this should be taken as a compliment.) Something about the way JLM acts cuts through the extraneous; I found the same to be true on the second night when he played The Creature. His acting brings clarity to the character, the events as they happen, the story as a whole. In places where Cumberbatch is showy, JLM is direct, which worked to the balance of the production overall.

And so on the second night, the birth of The Creature as portrayed by JLM seemed far less wearisome. But he also did not exude quite as much delight as Cumberbatch in his interpretation of The Creature discovering the world. But JLM's Creature showed more progress in movement and speech over the course of the play as a whole, as if the learning curve for the character had been brought to the fore; the intelligence is more evident.

On the flip side, Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein lent a humor to the character that JLM had not given him. Cumberbatch's delivery and timing were far more nuanced than JLM's had been.

I thought I would be able to walk away from both and say, "This one was better," but the truth is I would pick and choose parts of each to make the perfect show—a sort of theatrical Frankensteining.

As for the play itself, as I mentioned, I felt a bit as if I were being beat over the head with its themes of creator/creation, life, man, genius/monster, good/evil, and so forth. (To discuss it all would require a separate post.) Some of the dialogue was outright clunky. So while I can admire the stagecraft involved, I can't wholeheartedly admire the play. There is much to recommend it, but it wouldn't suffer for some finessing, either, though whether it's an issue of the writing or directing or both I'm not entirely sure. Would the same words in a less brute force display seem more appealing? Or do the words themselves need to be cut back a bit? Unclear. And it doesn't much matter what I say or think anyway, since the show was a hit and will surely live long on various stages in the future in one form or another.