29/10/2013 11:16 GMT | Updated 28/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Theatre Review: Frankenstein, NT Live, National Theatre


Frankenstein, the jewel in the crown of the National Theatre's NT Live initiative, is returning to UK cinemas just in time for Halloween. So if you haven't yet seen Danny Boyle's extraordinary interpretation of Mary Shelley's gothic tale of creation and destruction then grab your opportunity.

NT Live takes the best theatrical productions and broadcasts them in cinemas, allowing a far wider audience to see these ground-breaking productions. And Frankenstein remains one of the greats.

Let me admit this - Frankenstein is my favourite book. It's a story many think they know but it's been perverted over the years by B-movie horror films and popular culture. Such is my love for this story that I was actually preparing to hate this production. I thought it'd be yet another in a long line of misrepresentations and missed opportunities. I couldn't have been more wrong. Instead, in Nick Dear's hands, the much-overlooked Creature finally finds his own voice.

Like the book, the play starts with the Creature being born. The Creature is a physical form created by Dr Frankenstein through stitching together parts from many dead bodies, and given life through Frankenstein's manipulation of science. The Creature though was solely an exercise in ego-stroking and when Dr Frankenstein sees the physical aberration crawling towards him in his laboratory, he casts the Creature out, never wanting to see it again.

But from this point on, unlike the book, the play chooses to follow the Creature rather than the Doctor.

New-born and abandoned, unable to speak and barely able to walk, the Creature is forced to fend for himself. But it's a cold, harsh world and he struggles to find any kindness, any compassion in human society. And so the Creature learns to walk and talk, but he also learns anger, hate and the manipulative power of lying.

As we watch the Creature's spirit become warped by the abuse he suffers, we are forced to realise what a cruel world we have fashioned. Does this make us culpable in the Creature's crimes, the murders he commits as he slowly but surely takes revenge on his Father?

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has lasted because of the profound themes in her story - the morality of science, parental responsibilities, man's vanity, the removal of the divine from creation etc. Nick Dear's writing takes these all on, keeping the story's political punch alive.

And then there's Danny Boyle. He directed this before he officially became a National Treasure in 2012 but all his hallmarks are here - including signs of what would come to be realised on a far greater scale in the Olympic Park.


The energy in this show is practically palpable. The pulsating score from Underworld, the light bulbs that fill the roof of the Olivier crackle with electricity and the brutal, vivid realisation of science and industrialisation. The show has a pace that keeps you on the edge of your seat but there is real pathos also.

Frankenstein was box-office gold at the time and continues to be the biggest draw in the National's NT Live programme. Through every aspect of Frankenstein is worthy of exaltation, its continued popularity is heavily influenced by its leading men - Jonny Lee Miller and, in particular, Benedict Cumberbatch.

Now, back in 2011 when I went to see the original show at the National Theatre, I hadn't even heard of Cumberbatch. Now there's no escaping him - or his legions of admirers. I remember coming out of the theatre, seeing HUNDREDS of women surrounding the Stage Door in feverish anticipation and thinking, 'I didn't realise Jonny Lee Miller had such a fanbase.'

I know better now, of course.

As most are aware, there are two version of Frankenstein, with Cumberbatch and Lee Miller alternating the two lead roles. Both versions are being shown through NT Live. I'd love it if you could see both but, if pushed, like most, I would recommend the version with Benedict Cumberbatch playing the Creature.


We are used to seeing Cumberbatch play the smartest man in the room and there is a profoundly intellectual aspect to his portrayal of the Creature. Yet there's also great comic timing in his depiction of the more playful parts of the Creature's growing pains, and real tendresse and anxiety as the Creature battles his own internal conflict between love and revenge. And there are shadows of Olivier himself in Cumberbatch's physicality and athletic prowess around the stage.

There remains a reticence to release this show on DVD, though it would no doubt fly off the shelves. I understand this decision, willing audiences to become more involved with theatre. Nevertheless I am thankful that NT Live means that many more can see this brilliant production.

And I am grateful that the star power in this show ensures that Mary Shelley's extraordinary story and the warnings within are re-energised for another generation to appreciate.

NT Live, National Theatre

From October 31, 2013

Cinemas Nationwide