First Night: Frankenstein, Olivier Theatre, London


Imaginative productions pack a devastating punch

Nick Dear's taut, fiercely focused version of Frankenstein – a project that has brought Oscar-winning film-maker Danny Boyle back to his theatrical roots – offers a radically different ending from either Mary Shelley's 1818 novel (on which it is based) or the movie versions spawned by James Whale's 1931 classic with Boris Karloff. Here, in a luminously ice-green Arctic, the scientist Victor Frankenstein and his Creature both survive, umbilically linked in the kind of perpetual deathly symbiosis that would pass muster in Dante's Inferno.

"He lives for my destruction. I live to lead him on," declares the Creature of his frost-bitten, exhausted maker who, even now, as he is fed raw fish to sustain him in his futile quest, recoils from the proffered hand of his abhorred progeny. This existential stalemate, brilliantly realised in script and production, projects an indelible multi-layered emblem – of a scientist who can only accept responsibility for what he has engendered by impotently seeking to un-invent it and of a rejected son who understands that this last-ditch mutual dependence is a bitter travesty of the human reciprocity he had desired.

As the pair made their final exit into the foaming ice-haze at the rear of the Olivier stage on Tuesday evening, one felt a weird, unprecedented combination of indefinitely postponed catharsis and real cliff-hanger suspense. How was this so? Because Danny Boyle's extraordinarily haunting production is predicated on the notion of alternating the two leading actors – Jonny Lee Miller (who played Sick Boy for Boyle in Trainspotting) and Benedict Cumberbatch – in the roles of Frankenstein and his galvanised handiwork. To get the full beauty of the concept, you would ideally (and with a deep enough pocket) see the production twice – which is why critics have been caught up this week in a miniature bout of Groundhog Day. Having trooped to the National for Frankenstein on Tuesday, we trooped to the National for Frankenstein all over again last night.

The first time round, it was the more intuitively "natural" casting of Cumberbatch (a dab hand at semi-comically preoccupied intellectuals – e.g. Sherlock Holmes) in cruelly distant, arrogantly self-involved boffin-mode as Frankenstein. No flat-topped, bolt-in-the-neck weirdo like Karloff, Jonny Lee Miller's astonishing Creature flops stark-naked, shaven-headed and grotesquely scarred through the vaginal flaps of Frankenstein's circular Leonardo-esque contraption as a latently beautiful man. A bare, forked organism with an amplified thumping heart, Lee Miller gives a whole new lease of life to the term "shock to the system" as he struggles to come to terms with the bewilderments of existence and with the unkindness of strangers in a flailing, straining L-plate biped's ballet of spasmodic convulsions and electrocuted sensitivity.

Dear's play may be called Frankenstein but we see the action – the Creature's education, his understanding of his spurned predicament through Paradise Lost (he should have been Adam but feels like the outcast Satan) and his revenge – predominantly from the point of view of this new, progressively disillusioned being. You could imagine a project where the alternative evening served a related but distinct play, this time written from the perspective of the Scientist. Here, though, it's the same text on both occasions and the same viscerally creepy settings and ambience – replete with a thrusting triangular chandelier that flares and frazzles like a synaptic storm, a revolve that opens up into an Alpine abyss, and a bell-rope in the central aisle that you can pull and set off a teeth-rattling toll.

The role-reversal makes deep thematic sense because it highlights the irony whereby the son becomes the father, the slave the master and a three-year-old creature ends up understanding more about love and the soul than the wannabe Prometheus who sparked him into being. Broadly speaking, Cumberbatch emphasises the intellectual edge of both roles; Lee Miller takes us further into the feeling. The latter superbly communicates the Creature's aching need for contact in the scene where Frankenstein tricks and torments him with the sight and touch of a beautiful Bride only to hack her to bits. Cumberbatch is brilliant at conveying the blackly ridiculous aspects of the hubristic Scientist.

No less virtuosic than Lee Miller in the ballet stakes, Cumberbatch is more horrifying as Frankenstein's handiwork and more assertive in argument. Both actors are transcendent at portraying, in the final scene, the dreadful poignancy of the frock-coated Creature's mock-courtly sliding between desperate need of Frankenstein (cradling him in a pieta) and skittish, suicidal goading of him. These are imaginative productions that pack a devastating cumulative punch and score a singular success.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

    Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit