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A discussion about National Theatre’s FRANKENSTEIN

Today the National Theatre’s production of FRANKENSTEIN is now available to watch- this is cause for great joy because these are great productions!  Both productions star Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature respectively, with reverse casting the following production.

National Theatre Live’s FRANKENSTEIN

Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature is streaming for free from 7pm UK time on Thursday 30 April.

See the cast swap roles with Jonny Lee Miller as the creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein, streaming for free from 7pm UK time on Friday 1 May. 

Click here to watch the productions 

In a blast from the past, I found the theatre discussion that I had with the delightful Rachel, who you may recognize from our many adventures as documented on Instagram, and who doesn’t shy away from giving her opinions on things.  This was written a million years ago when we originally saw both productions and decided it warranted a discussion, so naturally, we had it online.  Here it is, edited from the original much longer post (if you can believe it).

Rachel and I being delightful with our opinions

197 year old spoiler! This does spoil the story of “Frankenstein” which was written in 1823 by Mary Shelley and is what this play is based upon.

R =  Rachel, EM = ErinMarie 

R: Before we begin, I think it’s important we get this out of the way: Swoon at Benedict Cumberbatch; Swoon at Johnny Lee Miller; Swoon at the clothes. Are we good? Can we focus now?

EM: Focusing has never really been our strong suit.

There are so many elements to this play, most of all the dynamic performance of the two leads, Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature.  But first, let’s set the scene and discuss the set, lights and music.

The set is an interactive turntable that also had a walkway through the audience for the actors to enter from occasionally.  This entrance always represented the society which Dr. Frankenstein inhabited, including the house and the church.

R: Your mind is superb!!

EM: So true…

R: The lighting was such an interesting element in this show. It really became another actor that the others played off of. From the very beginning of the show it played a role, being the thing which gave the creature life, which frightened the creature, which shone down lovingly on him. It was absolutely exquisite.

EM: Agreed! It was this amazing amalgam of different lights and light fixtures and every time it went off it was different. (side note: I would like this fixture for my house) (2020 note: I still do)  

Sometimes a full flash, sometimes a subtle line of light that danced through the whole.  It was always a harbinger of change though, for good or bad.  

R: The music was another really interesting choice; it was very steampunk for a show that was very period. The initial interlude showing the Creature coming into town and his first interactions with people was particularly vivid and almost shocking (to me, anyway) because it was so big and loud. During the scene changes the rhythm and sound of that music; to me it almost added to the scariness of the show and the times.

EM:  Especially in big scene changes, where the train came in, the wooden piers were being placed or the sled appeared.  These scene changes were big and involved more movement and props.  The music is very industrial and metallic gave the sense of work as well as a sinister sense of “what is being created next?”.

R: Yay!! We are so good at this.

There was such a startling contrast in the ways the leads played the roles, which I had not expected to see. The way that Cumberbatch played the Creature and Miller Dr. Frankenstein showcased that Dr. Frankenstein was really the monster. 

Cumberbatch’s performance showed the frustration the Creature felt on being born and abandoned to learn on his own. He learned quickly, but had to go through all the steps to do so. From the very beginning, he was careful and methodical in learning how to walk, how to feel, how to eat, how to speak, etc. He learned how to behave, really, from how he was treated. 

EM:  In the original casting (Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein) the Creature is all about connections  – learning how to connect to the nerves in his body to learn how to walk, how to connect with people, how to get his point across.  His actions had consequences and he was painfully and acutely aware of them.  He liked learning philosophy and history and applied those lessons because he liked the information.  He was created with a fully formed brain, so he learned from those before him and used the information wisely.

This was at odds with the “educated” Dr. Frankenstein (Miller) who was so disconnected from his world and the consequences of his actions.  He did it because he could and because he is better, smarter and more clever than anyone.  He doesn’t care and he only applies the lessons he wants to acknowledge.  Which makes him being outsmarted and being taught how to be human by the thing he created very fitting.

R: I’m going to lunch. 🙂

EM: What?!?!  Rude

R: Whatever. I’m hungry. I’ll get coffee and then we’ll continue. It’ll be fab.

EM: Since I have been ABANDONED (much like Frankenstein’s Creature) I shall continue on without her.

R: Why are you like this?

EM: Anyway…

Same scene, different takes: Left side: Jonny Lee Miller as The Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein. Right picture: Benedict Cumberbatch as Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Frankenstein. National Theatre Live

In regards to the Creature, I felt like the main difference in Miller’s portrayal was that he was more aggressive.  While Cumberbatch’s Creature had the same lines and same background, Miller’s Creature used his fully formed brain to learn quickly -not because the information was interesting to him but because it was useful in his desire to manipulate.  

Cumberbatch used his education to manipulate as well, but only because he was pushed into that corner as a last resort. Miller’s Creature stood on the shoulders of giants (philosophy, history, education) to accomplish something because he could then move forward with his own actions, Cumberbatch’s Creature stood on those same shoulders and asked if he should continue forward before he did something.  

I felt Miller’s portrayal was more aggressive, selfish and uncaring of what his actions did – whereas Cumberbatch’s creature was more sensitive and seemed to truly regret his actions, in particular in regards to Elizabeth (Frankenstein’s fiance).

R: I would say that it is true of each of their portrayals of Dr. Frankenstein as well. 

Miller’s Dr. Frankenstein was very brash. He looked at his Creature as less than him because he had made it and he did not want to take responsibility for the havoc he had wrought. 

Cumberbatch’s Dr. Frankenstein was much more thoughtful. He seemed to weigh his actions, to look back on them, and actually feel some regret, whereas Miller’s Dr. Frankenstein did not.

The biggest difference in their portrayals, in my opinion, were their interactions with Elizabeth.

Miller was very derisive of the concept of love and of following normal conventions. The thought of producing children to create life was also repugnant to him, as he saw himself able to create life directly. 

Cumberbatch seemed to want to understand love more. He wanted to love Elizabeth except he did not quite connect to actually loving her.

In Miller’s portrayal, it seemed like he did not understand that the Creature would come after Elizabeth after the wedding as he was so egotistical as to believe the Creature only wanted to destroy him. 

In Cumberbatch’s portrayal, he understood that the Creature would want to kill his wife as Frankenstein had killed the Creature’s wife. There seemed to be more desperation in his actions.

EM:   Both Frankenstein’s are egocentric and emotionally distant in their own ways.

Miller’s Frankenstein only wanted children because it was expected of him, not because he wanted to be a father in any traditional sense or any desire for love, family or a companion.  He was only interested in fulfilling the Creature’s request for a companion because it was a challenge to his scientific mind, not out of any sense of duty to the lonely creature he “fathered” in its creation. 

Cumberbatch’s Dr. Frankenstein was curious and intrigued by this idea of “love” in that it is something that needs to be described and his “superb mind” could not rationally understand. 

I feel like we should wrap this up as it is getting long. 

R: ANYWAY. To wrap things up. The show was absolutely spectacular. You can hardly see one version without seeing the other.

I would like to resume swooning now, if you please.

EM: Feel free to commence swooning.

R: Swoon.

Can we even post this? Is this even post-able?

EM: Let’s leave that decision to the comments section.

Looking for more  ideas of what to do during this time of quarantine? Click here for more suggestions

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