Frankenstein (Review)

Unrelated picture, but this is how I felt. (Street art in London.)
Here's something new - a theatre review. Granted, I'm no theatre critic, I just saw a play and want to tell you what I thought of it. But I promise you this is an actual review of the play, not pure fangirling.

As I mentioned yesterday, I went to see a screening of the 2011 Frankenstein play last night (directed by Danny Boyle). It was version 2, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and Jonny Lee Miller as The Creature.

My worries concerning the audience turned out to be unfounded - while it was overwhelmingly young and female, and while a quick "survey" conducted by the theatre's presenter before the screening as to "Team Cumberbatch" and "Team Miller" showed that they were, indeed, the main reasons for many of us being there (including myself), everyone was on their best behaviour during the actual screening. Especially during the first 15 minutes or so, where the Creature wakes up and discovers his body and the world, you could have heard a pin drop.

Sure, when Frankenstein bellowed something like "My mind is brilliant!" or the Creature told him it was a logical being or said "I cannot stand inconsistency!", it was hard not to laugh. But that's alright and probably only surprised the few older couples who had presumably just come to see a British National Theatre play and knew nothing of the actors' other roles. Anyway, there are other funny moments in it that have nothing to do with external references. Like Cumberbatch-Frankenstein's expression, which I can only describe as a "WTF face" (as we theatre critics say), when the "monster" quotes Milton at him.

The stage set is simple and evocative at once, the lighting is spectacular, and the music works without being overpowering. One of the things that impressed me about the set was the use of that translucent, vellum-like material throughout the play to very different effects. As the womb or egg from which the Creature emerges, in the house and the boat and again in Frankenstein's laboratory. In this trailer you can see it pulsing before the Creature emerges from it. In terms of direction, the scene in which the Creature first sees people other than his creator is shocking and overwhelming, filled with noise and light and steam - it's as if you see it through the Creature's eyes.

Jonny Lee Miller is simply amazing as the Creature, from beginning to end. I feel it is the stronger character in the play, and it certainly dominates the first part, but as we turn to Frankenstein and his research, Benedict Cumberbatch really shines as the amoral scientist for whom everything is justified in the name of science and progress. That part - a genius with little regard for morality, doing things for science! - sounds like it might carry Sherlockian overtones, but there's nothing of Sherlock in Benedict's Frankenstein. This is a very different character, both on paper and on stage, and it is not only because Frankenstein pours all his emotions and passions into his work where Sherlock remains cold and analytical.

While the main reason I went to see this play were definitely the leading actors, I think I would have been just as impressed if I hadn't know them beforehand. They are truly brilliant at what they do. I wasn't as impressed by the rest of the cast and was in fact quite disappointed by Mr Frankenstein (Victor's father), played by George Harris. His acting was wooden and his lines sounded too obviously rehearsed. Most of the other characters were a bit exaggerated, but it seemed intentional (not only by the actors but the director) and wasn't as jarring as Harris' performance. However, the supporting roles - with the exception of the (convincing) blind, old De Lacey - are rather marginal in the play, which may be a reason for their seeming unimpressiveness and, at the same time, mean that a mediocre performance of one of them didn't detract too much from the overall enjoyment of the play. The true magic here is in seeing the Creature and Victor interact.

The message of the play sounds trite when you put it on paper, and it's not like we didn't all know what it was going to be: The true monster here is not the Creature. But it is hard to see it as cliché when the play drives home so brutally the point that monsters aren't born, they're made.

The play impressed me so much that I will be going to see version 1 - with Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein - in January. It will be interesting to see how it is with reversed roles. I find it hard to imagine a Creature better than Miller's, but what I've heard above all is that they both play the characters very differently, so it might not be better but instead different and still as good. We'll see.

There will still be some screenings of the play during the next months in various locations - check here to see if there's one near you. Go and see it if you can, even if you're not a fan of the actors, but note that it should come with a trigger warning. If you need details on that, feel free to contact me.

Have you seen this play? How do you feel about the theatre? Do you prefer classic or modern plays?

Captain Spacenails


  1. Haven't seen either version yet, but I've heard some really good things about JL Miller as Frankenstein as well.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm looking forward to Miller's Frankenstein, I've heard great things as well. If you have a chance to catch one of the shows, I highly recommend it!


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