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BWW Review: FRANKENSTEIN, National Theatre At Home

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BWW Review: FRANKENSTEIN, National Theatre At HomeBWW Review: FRANKENSTEIN, National Theatre At HomeDoes the creation of a hybrid version of a beautiful thing destroy the very beauty that inspired the creator? Well, more of that later...

Nick Dear went back to Mary Shelley's source material to write the voice back into the mouth of The Creature, and Danny Boyle - limbering up for his Olympics Opening Ceremony a year later - got the epic vibe going as director. Throw in the superstar casting of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (alternating roles as Victor Frankenstein and his nemesis) and you can't miss, can you? Well, it didn't in 2011, and The National Theatre must be applauded for making one of its iconic productions available, free on its online platforms, while its auditoriums stand silent.

We get the celebrated opening scene, as The Creature fights its way out of a kind of amniotic sac, struggling like a newborn foal to find its feet and move in a strange world into which he has been conjured. Cumberbatch (playing The Creature in the version reviewed here) is compelling in this tour-de-force stumbling, spinning, sentient birth - crucially, we see The Creature's otherness, but also its hopes and vulnerabilities, all without words.

The Creature learns to speak (after a fashion) and to read and write from an old blind man, displaying much empathy for his family - he has a good heart in a hideous body. But, on seeing his form, the old man's family beat him and banish him. It's all very reminiscent of The Elephant Man, with Cumberbatch's tics and strangulated delivery owing much to John Hurt's unforgettable performance too. The look is also more David Lynch than James Whale, The Creature (that lack of a name is telling) sewn rather than bolted (Hollywood style) together. We believe in The Creature's humanity, in its capacity for emotional pain as well as physical.

The pace picks up when The Creature engineers a meeting with Frankenstein, whom he despises for his rejecting him. Miller gives us the full mad scientist schtick, the ego unrestrained, the God Complex front and centre, doom very much the most likely outcome. There's cruelty too, with a female Creature created and then mutilated by Frankenstein, sending his living creation over the edge of psychosis.

There's time for a lovely understated cameo (and a scene that is as horrific as any I have seen on stage in years) from Naomie Harris - by this stage I welcomed "stated" never mind "understated" - and the curtain falls after two intense hours of Gothic horror.

Does the transfer from stage, to cinema (this version was beamed to screens to celebrate The National Theatre's 50th anniversary in 2013) to home screen work? Well, I'd suggest that this hybrid creation is a little more like The Creature than The Creature's Bride, the seams showing rather more than would ideally be the case.

Cumberbatch is acting for the Olivier audience, a huge house in which the gestures that continually contort The Creature are mediated by distance, which also does the job in a cinema. Up close on a living room screen, however, it's too much - too relentless, the pathos drowned by the whirling, slurring dervish whom you long to hear speak his lines in that most unmistakable of English stage voices, untainted by affectation. That Cumberbatch's voice does emerge through from time to time (in quoting from Paradise Lost, for example) makes its distortion all the more painful to hear.

Miller fares little better in this new environment - so there's more than a touch of Gene Wilder's Dr Frankenstein in his performance (he doesn't quite shout "Alive! It's alive! It's alive!", but nobody would have been surprised if he did). Again, the issue is scale - Miller's hyped-up, shouty scientist is intended for hundreds of eyes and ears and not for you and your cat on the sofa. It grates - but it's neither Boyle's fault as director, nor Miller's as actor, it's just that different media require different approaches.

Nevertheless, the show is a ferocious condemnation of hate's begetting of hate, especially hate generated by prejudice. As the world faces an uncertain future, its message that we must embrace our fellow man (even if not, at the moment, literally so) - no matter what they look like nor what they may harbour in their make-up - or else face the consequences of rejecting fellowship, as an organising principle, it could hardly be more timely.

Frankenstein is available on The National Theatre's YouTube Channel until 7 May

Photo Catherine Ashmore

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From This Author Gary Naylor