Frankenstein at the National Theatre Online
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Frankenstein in the National Theatre’s first free streaming of its, pardon the pun, “monster” hit of 2011. Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller famously alternated with each other, giving their own take on both the creature and its creator. The large-scale production drew director Danny Boyle back to the stage after he’d found huge Hollywood success and the result is the ambitious, big-budget and high-octane production we’d expect with such great names at the helm.
It’s obvious just how atmospheric Frankenstein must have been in the live auditorium, when a large bell is struck to summon silence as the play opens – undoubtedly sending a jolt through the packed audience. Many of the jump-shocks are, of course, somewhat muted on the small screen; however, the upside here is seeing close up the incredible physical theatre executed by Cumberbatch. For almost ten minutes at the start, barely a word is uttered. Instead, we are enthralled as we witness Frankenstein’s birth into the world. Every movement, mannerism and facial expression exudes the childlike wonder and confusion experienced by the creature, and Cumberbatch later extends this with his nuanced tone of voice. We invest ourselves in this creature and can see the humanity and capacity for emotional intelligence that lies beyond its gruesome exterior. It’s no exaggeration to say Cumberbatch’s performance is a master class in acting.
Miller is also compelling as Frankenstein, the egomaniac with a God complex. There’s a great danger of slipping into caricature, but Miller elevates the material he is offered, ensuring that the complexities of his character are not completely shrouded by his hyperactive demeanour. Stellar support comes in the form of Naomie Harris as Frankenstein’s neglected wife Elizabeth; the actor ensures her character stands on her own rather than becoming the stereotypical subservient lesser half. When she confronts her husband as to why he created a monster rather than giving her a child, the scene is packed with pent-up emotion and confusion. Harris gives great depth to Elizabeth and complements Miller incredibly well, while also sharing the darkest scene of the play with Cumberbatch.
A gloomy and foreboding air permeates throughout, but Boyle permits a scattering of laughs. With no interval, we are firmly drawn in and enmeshed in this gothic world for two intense hours. It’s complete entertainment and escapism, although the play’s central theme of embracing our fellow man despite our differences carries a more pertinent meaning in the current climate.
We have to remind ourselves that the Olivier is an epic stage and the performers are playing to this with their vocals and physicality. Some acting, therefore, seems over the top and exaggerated when watching from home but, of course, an audience seated behind a small screen was never the intended target. Frankenstein will never transfer as well as it did in the theatre, but for those who missed it, this performance is a gift of great acting and storytelling from the National. Donations are encouraged to support this iconic venue during this uncertain time.
Photo: Catherine Ashmore
NT Live: Frankenstein is at the National Theatre from 30th April until 8th May 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the official trailer for Frankenstein here: