Sorry to report that I was very disappointed by the National Theater’s version of Frankenstein. It felt like one of those grey, cerebral opera productions, without any opera to make up for it.
Clearly, there were some impressive theatrical set-pieces — the burning of the peasants' farm, the disappearance of the Creature and the Creator into the blinding light at the end, and the killing of the female creature. And clearly, not much of that came across in the filmed version. A rotating stage is impressive; a film of a rotating stage, not so much.
It may be that I watch modern theatre in the wrong way: Danny Boyle may rightly think that a play is a sequence of theatrical effects; and that stage acting is a kind of a circus act or contact sport in which actors impress you with how much acting they can do. If you care about the words they are saying you should stay home and read a book.
The play was only superficially connected to Mary Shelly’s novel; but it didn’t really bring anything new or interesting to the myth of Frankenstein. Victor Frankenstein’s dialogue was banal; and the miscellaneous peasants, hobos and Victorian prostitutes seemed to have stepped out of an amateur production of Oliver! You could do a stage Frankenstein as pure melodrama; Victor’s loved ones systematically being killed by a mostly unseen enemy; or you could try to seriously explore the novel’s themes. This play does neither. Over and over again the action stops for massive Socratic dialogues: the Creature is present and verbose when Victor starts to create the female creature; he has an equally long drawn out discussion with Elizabeth before killing her off. I especially liked the bit where Elizabeth told Victor that she wished it wasn’t the olden days because girls aren't allowed to go to school. Because Mary Shelly wasn’t a good enough feminist. But no-one has anything worth hearing to say.
The play seems to take the simplest possible reading of Frankenstein: that the Creature turns bad because his creator rejects him; that he is a tabula rasa which is good as long as people are kind to him, but turns evil when people treat him badly. Except that Elizabeth treats him very kindly at the end, and he kills her anyway; which removes the psychological interest in the character and reduces him to… a monster.
The play touches on John Sutherland’s thesis that the Creature is not a zombie but a golem. Sutherland was obviously correct: Victor doesn’t merely resurrect a corpse but actually creates a new being, in imitation and defiance of God. When William asks him how he brought the Creature to life, Victor replies “I can’t tell you; you’re too little” which suggests that Boyle agrees with Sutherland that there is something disgustingly sexual involved in the procedure. The opening scene of the production eschews the Hollywood cliches of art deco lightening conductors and electrodes to show the Creature bursting out of some kind of womb or egg. But in the second half Victor calls in comedy grave robbers to provide a body for the Bride of Frankenstein; and ends up ranting that he knows how to bring Elizabeth back to life.
With a banal text, not much of the plot of the novel, and not many interesting ideas, all we are left with is Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the Creature. And he certainly did the most acting I've seen this year. I'd quite like to know if he found something interesting to do with Victor's lines, but I'm not sure I could cope with 20 minutes of Johnny Lee Miller writhing around the stage in his underpants. (I believe if I had bought a ticket for the live show he would have been writhing around the stage without them.)