Watching Danny Boyle’s epic production of “Frankenstein,” the comparison that springs most readily to mind is “Titanic,” but not in the metaphorical sense. This is no sinking ship, thanks largely to casting screen names Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller switching nightly between playing creature and creator who have ensured a SRO initial run. But not since James Cameron’s waterlogged winner has there been such a disparity between dazzling sound and visuals and a threadbare script.
The in-period adaptation by playwright-screenwriter Nick Dear is necessarily severe. Unlike Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca,” the other celebrated novel in which the central character has no name, Mary Shelley’s original 1818 novel is more celebrated for its fascinating ideas than its driving narrative.
Thus Dear wisely excises the novel’s longwinded, epistolary framing device and the character of the polar explorer to whom Victor tells his tale. Out too go Victor’s sometime companion Clerval and Justine who, in the original, is hanged for the murder of Victor’s brother. Also, the trials and most of the crowd scenes, beloved of the multiple movie versions, are gone.
Boyle and Dear, who first discussed the project 20 years ago when working at the Royal Shakespeare Company, have focused instead on the central relationship. So much so, that almost the first third of the novel has been binned in order to open at the most fiercely dramatic moment, the “birth” of Victor’s nameless creature.
Scorched by a streak of Bruno Poet’s visceral, white-hot light, the naked and bloodied creature bursts through a backlit diaphragm. Twitching like an electrified Francis Bacon portrait, it skitters and jack-knifes across the cavernous expanse of the otherwise empty Oliver stage. The meshing of physicality (the compelling movement is by Toby Sedgwick who brought “War Horse” so powerfully to life at the same address) with light, amplified sound and imaginative vision is riveting and sets up excited expectation.
In terms of theatrical immensity, there’s more to come. A giant train showering sparks screams down towards the audience, flocks of birds fly up seemingly from nowhere and the stage’s central turntable allows sets to wheel, corkscrew-like, out of the floor to literally towering effect. But equivalent dramatic intensity is in short supply.
For the confrontations between the “monster” and his maker to achieve full resonance, they need to be grounded in the everyday world which is where the production goes badly awry.
Dear’s linear adaptation strips scenes down to so bare a minimum that the supporting actors have nothing to do but supply exposition. Karl Johnson struggles manfully to bring depth to the blind man who unwittingly takes pity on the creature, but the rest of the worryingly overemphatic cast collapse into caricature.
Even Victor’s fiance Elizabeth is reduced to an implausiblly modern stand-by-your-man figure. Some of her responses to her plight – she’s been forced to wait years to marry – elicits laughter of the wrong sort. It’s an indication of Dear and Boyle’s failure to find a sustained tone.
Boyle’s bravura handling of spectacle also sits uneasily beside his awkward handling of intimate scenes.
The show’s strength lies with its stars. Benedict Cumberbatch is more hard-edged in both roles – with a lean incisiveness that pays major dividends as a more fierce Victor. He also finds unexpected comedy as the creature, appearing to surprise himself as he stumbles and cavorts about the stage.
By contrast, Jonny Lee Miller uses his natural warmth to expressive effect, giving more heart to the creature. His Victor is less austere than that of Cumberbatch, who is more convincing as an intellectual way out of his depth.
Their combined box-office power – not to mention the return to the theater of Oscar-garlanded Boyle after 15 years – should ensure a healthy extended run. But the puzzlingly inconsistent production asks serious questions about the National’s literary management, principally, how could a script this weak have made it to the stage?