NT Live: Frankenstein

Note: This blog post contains spoilers.  If you have not read Frankenstein, or intend to see this production and do not wish to know what happens, do not read further.

One of the things I miss most about living in London is the access to wonderful, world-class theatre.  Now, before all of my theatre compatriots in Vancouver get their knickers in a knot, don't get me wrong - I love what we are producing here - but we have to admit we don't have access to the star power or budgets available in a city like London.  Only in London could the National Theatre put on a Danny Boyle-directed version of


and double-cast the show with leads like Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster each night.  I was pained to have missed this production - not least because I'm not sure how supportive it will look to my future husband, Benedict Cumberbatch if he finds out I


go - and so I was delighted when NT Live made both versions available for broadcast at local cinemas.

Audiences love to compare and contrast actors playing the same role.  Who's your favourite Sherlock Holmes? Who's your favourite Bond?  It's a fun game to play.  It's incredibly rare, however, to get to see two actors play the same parts, with the same cast, in the same production, and then play them

opposite each other.  

Caitlin and I saw


 last week with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor.  We had deliberately chosen to see this over the Miller version, as we thought it would be fascinating to see BC, who plays such controlled characters like Sherlock, and Peter in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, play, well, a monster.  

We loved it, although BC's creature went through a painful "birth," finding his legs, literally, in a scene that went on for far too many uncomfortable minutes.  His Creature was never childlike, more like an purely animal being at first, but quickly becoming sharp as a tack, learning the ways of man at monumental speed.  His exploration of himself and his surroundings was mostly internal, cerebral, and BC managed to convey the Creature's astonishing intelligence, confined within the most basic of physical trappings given to him by Frankenstein, his creator, extremely convincingly.  His gradual disenchantment with humanity and descent into cruelty seemed inevitable rather than tragic, like something he expected, while wishing he might have been wrong.  He seemed more of an alien visitor in a hostile world, who grows weary of his surroundings and yearns for home, than a human following the path from innocence to experience.

Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature.

Jonny Lee Miller's Victor was an intense, mirthless man.  You got a sense that Dr. Frankenstein was a deeply unhappy man, unsatisfied with his existence, way before his "animation" of the Creature made his life a misery.  Miller could barely control his disdain for his own invention.  While you could see moments of grudging admiration for all the Creature learns and accomplishes in his brief existence, the disgust and disdain for his "slave" was palpable.   At no times did Miller's Frankenstein seem unhinged, or the stereotypical "mad scientist" who might shriek "It's alliiiiiiiiiive."

Jonny Lee Miller as Victor, with Naomie Harris as Elizabeth.

Tonight I went back and saw the production in reverse, with Darling Husband as Dr. Frankenstein and Miller as the Creature.  I hadn't intended to see both, but after the first viewing I found I couldn't resist.  I wanted to see the two men play the opposite roles, yes, but I also wanted to see how the other members of the cast's performances changed with the switcher-oo.  Would there be more chemistry between BC and Naomie Harris, for example, than JLM and NH?  Would certain scenes that were funny be un-funny, and vice-versa?  

Miller's Creature was much more of a child being born into the world, rather than some wary interloper.  His Creature stalked about the stage like a toddler learning to walk, and laughed, smiled and drooled with a childlike openness.   In the opening scenes, where the Creature meets Delacey, the kind old blind man that teaches him to speak, and read, Miller seemed full of hope and optimism.  He bowed to Delacey, and to Delacey's children, who reject him, with a courtly elegance and willingness to love and be loved that is touching and endearing.  But in Miller's Creature, as the love is close to the surface, so is the darkness, which makes the Creature's menace all too more chilling.

In the scene where Elizabeth meets and befriends the Creature, who has promised her safety, only to be informed that he "lied," before being raped and murdered by him, you get the sense in Miller's performance that the Creature knows perfectly well that what he is doing is evil.  And that he chooses, and has come to relish, the evil, that the hurt he has suffered in his brief life is so profound that only revenge can soothe the ache.  He cannot rationalize his pain.  In BC's Creature, this same violent scene seems a foregone conclusion - that the Creature is actually amoral and doing only what he knows.  After all, Frankenstein promised him a wife and then took her away; why should not the Creature do the same?  As the Creature himself says, he is expert at "the art of assimilation." These subtle differences in how each actor played this scene, and others, were absolutely fascinating to me.

Miller as the Creature, Cumberbatch as Victor.

I had desperately wanted Darling Husband to excel in the role of the Creature more than in the role of Dr. Frankenstein.  The role of a brilliant scientist just seemed too close to home, already well-worn ground in


  But while he may have excelled as the Creature, he absolutely shone as Victor, the brilliant scientist.  And  Victor was nothing like our dear Mr. Holmes, despite what could be seen as obvious similarities in temperament.  In this Victor we had a man who is consumed by ego and by intellect, so devoted to his work that he cannot destroy it, even after it has destroyed him and those he loves.  He only lights up when discussing his work, or his hopes for science and medicine.  While he is disgusted at the sight of the Creature, he is also all too willing to admire his own handiwork and to gloat at the complexity of what he has wrought, to his own (and his loved ones') peril. 

My future husband (as Victor).

An interesting dimension that Darling Husband brought more to light in his Victor than Miller was Victor's incapacity to love (or perhaps, this was made more apparent thanks to Miller's all-emotion, all-feeling Creature, I don't know).  There is a scene where, in making a companion for the Creature, Victor quizzes the monster on what it feels to love.  The Creature responds eloquently and sincerely that it feels like he can do anything.   Victori neatly replies that he was just "testing" the Creature, but you can see, just in a flicker across BC's face, that he cannot empathize.  He has never felt this love that the Creature has already felt, in an instant, for his new companion.  In the final scenes, Victor confirms this - saying, "I don't know what it is to love."  And it's true.  Of all of the consequences of Victor's experiments, this is the one that is most soul-destroying to him: that the Creature he has brought into existence through electricity and alchemy has more capacity to love than his own, human creator.  

Miller was an exquisite Creature.  He was at turns hilarious (when his Creature learned to speak and read he also learned sarcasm and humour), heartbreaking in his willingness to love his master unconditionally, and always menacing, ready to turn in an instant on those who betrayed him with unbridled rage and violence.  While I loved the first production, I think this combination, with Miller as the Creature and Darling Husband as Victor, was the most rich and resonant, for me at least. 

I was disappointed in how consistent the rest of the cast's performances were - sadly I have nothing to report on how vastly different the supporting roles were played opposite these two very different actors (damn professionals).  

Boyle's whole experiment in alternate casting is just so interesting.  To have the Creator become the Created, and vice-versa - over and over again - it speaks to humanity's endless struggle to relate to its origins, whatever they may be, and to the world we are forced into, and the endless love-hate cycle of existence.  Just brilliant.

You can still check out NT Live's 


at Cineplex.  Click


for more information.  One final note: While I applaud these initiatives for bringing new audiences to theatre, I'd also like to remind all you readers that we have wonderful artists making excellent theatre right here in Vancouver.  So if you buy a ticket for


 please do also buy a ticket to see something right here in your hometown.  We appreciate your support.