(Warning—post contains mention of sexual assault)

Last Monday, I attended a viewing of the filmed recording of the UK National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein. One reason this staging of the play is so well known is because the two stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternated the roles of Frankenstein and his Creature. The version I saw featured Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein.

In a short film preceding the play, the actors discussed their approaches to the roles. As part of his preparation for the role of the Creature, Cumberbatch studied films of victims of stroke and brain injuries relearning how to speak and move, and incorporated their speech patterns and movements into his performance. After tumbling from a framework pouch onto the stage, an action that resembled a newborn emerging from a womb, he spent the opening minutes of the first scene rolling and stumbling about the stage as he struggled to gain control of his limbs, stand, and walk. It was the start of a physical performance by an actor from whom I wouldn’t have expected such. I imagine that his heavy make-up—the stitches and scarring were painful to behold—covered self-inflicted bruises on more than one occasion.

At this point, I will confess that I have never read the book by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, though I have read synopses and discussions. I also watched Rory Kinnear’s turn as the Creature in the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful,” so an erudite monster with a philosophical bent in place of the monosyllabic Karloff version was no surprise. I attended with a friend who had read the Shelley classic, and she said that the play followed that plot pretty closely. The emphasis was not on the science, but on the impact that the reanimation and its ramifications have on creator, created, and all those unlucky enough to inhabit their spheres.

While there are a few light moments, the overall mood was grim, and the portrayal and treatment of the women bothered me. In the scene where Frankenstein shows the Creature his intended bride, the not-yet-reanimated woman, played by Andreea Paduraru, stands naked from the waist up, mute and by all appearances unaware as Frankenstein and the Creature fondle and marvel over her. Soon after, Frankenstein, fearing the possibility of his creations breeding, slaughters her before she is given any voice. Later, the fate of Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth, played by Naomie Harris, is worse. When she encounters the Creature in the bedroom she and Frankenstein are to share, she shows him kindness, which he repays by assaulting and murdering her. I knew of the murder, but I am pretty sure that assault was not in the book, and I didn’t believe it was necessary at all. It was enough that that Creature murdered someone who accepted him in order to devastate the creator who cruelly wronged him. The rape was gratuitous.

That said, I don’t regret seeing this play. Cumberbatch’s performance was riveting, and the work itself is thought provoking. I have seen Frankenstein described as a cautionary tale, and this version certainly lived up to that label. The staging is imaginative and the supporting performances good. I don’t believe, however, that I would want to see it again.

According to the schedule, the version featuring Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein will run today, 29 October. According to one review I read, Miller’s approach stresses the child-like aspects of the Creature’s development, a much different interpretation than that of Cumberbatch.



About Kristine Smith

Kristine Smith is the author of the Jani Kilian series and a number of SF and fantasy short stories, and is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She worked as a pharmaceutical process development scientist for 26 years, but now writes full-time. She also writes supernatural thrillers under the name Alex Gordon. Check out her BVC bookshelf


Frankenstein — 16 Comments

  1. I’m hoping to see it tonight–though I wish I had been able to see Cumberbatch as the creature because he is, in fact, an immensely physical actor (one thinks of his voice, but his Hamlet, which I saw as an NT screening, was tremendously physical).

    Ah, well. If I get to see it this evening I’ll let you know how Miller does.

    • I will be very interested to hear about the Miller interpretation. The reviewer who had seen both preferred his.

      I am a fan of Cumberbatch, but I am not at all familiar with his classical theater work. I’ve seen him in films and on TV, and in those roles I did not sense the physicality. Even in Dr Strange, I assumed a stuntman stood in for the worst of it. I may be wrong in assuming that.

      • I’m sure the stuntman stood in for the worst of it. But Cumberbatch surprised me in his Hamlet by not only how active he was, but by the range of physicality from small to immense. Victor Frankenstein doesn’t have the same range as the Monster, but his Victor was almost childish in his disregard for consequences.

        I liked Miller’s Monster–but some of it (tongue-jutting, drooling, etc., even after has become the sophisticated character of the second half of the play) was almost distracting. His childishness growing into adult bitterness is beautiful and terrifying.

        The set was amazing; as a former (very former) stage tech, I could have watched an entire performance with nothing but the set and light cues.

        And I suspect Mary Shelley would be a little startled by some of the changes; I love that the play starts with the birth of the creature (rather than on the arctic ice and going through the long process of Victor creating the Monster), but it does skew the play in the Monster’s favor. But then, I’ve always thought Victor would have made a terrible father to human children, based on his treatment of this first child.

        • It did start at speed, didn’t it? Though I did feel that Frankenstein ordering his creation away sped by too quickly. I felt the scene could’ve used a touch more build, and lasted a little longer. Though that might’ve skewed it in the Monster’s favor even more.

          Victor would’ve been a hopeless parent. I could see his child(ren) creating a Monster in his image in the hope it would be a better father.

    • Not finding anything online about it, but Cumberbatch is showing up in a number of “dreamcasting/fancasting” posts about those roles. I checked his IMDb page, and no mention, either.

      It would be something to see.

  2. Both versions are often trotted out at this time of year, so if you don’t catch it this time around keep your eye out next October. It does indeed hew fairly closely to the novel, shedding all the movie accretions that have accumulated over the years. I was particularly struck by the failure of fatherhood/creator that the doctor embodies. If he had taken better care of his creature, the moral seems to be, it would have turned out better. And of course the final polar-sledging image, adorable. Did you notice how very flexible the staging was? They can do anything, with a minimum of stuff.

  3. Saw it last week. The staging was amazing.
    I too was bothered by the treatment of the women. But it could be argued that that reflected Frankenstein’s attitude towards women in particular -and other humans in general. He really was a revolting specimen.

    • Full-bore Victorian furnishings wouldn’t have worked–they’d have overwhelmed everything. The staging allowed the actors to stand out.

      I also wondered if it was a statement by Shelley herself–from all I’ve read about her, it seems an observation she would make. I am going to have to read Frankenstein eventually.

      This SyFy blog post about the many iterations of The Bride makes for interesting reading, as well. The statement that the Bride could’ve been allowed to live if Frankenstein had simply sterilized her struck me. Quite logical, but could it also be taken as a statement that a woman who could not bear children might as well be dead? Could Kris be reading too much into this because she’s having a Monday?

      Frankenstein was utterly clueless when it came to human relations, as clueless as his creation. “Revolting specimen” is a good term for him.

      • As far as he was concerned no one else had an independent existence. They just reflected his fantasies and fears. Makes me wonder about how Shelly was the men in her circle. That had to be a claustrophobic winter for that group. I think that was the ‘year without a summer’s – had all over the globe, but the mountains of Switzerland must have been brutal.

  4. Yes, there are a lot of ways to analyze the work, and I will say that the play allows all of these full rein. Consider, for instance, that the Creature could be the manifestation of Frankenstein’s true nature — a Jekyll-Hyde situation. It does nothing, really, that Frankenstein himself would not do; only the veneer of Regency civilization is stripped away. Naturally he has to repudiate his creation; he can’t bear the sight of his true self.
    Another striking notion is how, although the Creature reads widely, that doesn’t civilize. Books are not the solution, a significant thought when you consider the circle the author moved in.

  5. We saw the Cumberbatch/Creature version last week — we were to see the Miller/Creature one last night, but two of our party were sick and we decided to cancel. Certainly the physicality of Cumberbatch was amazing — I’ve always been amazed at the things he can do with his body and his mouth. Showing the Creature’s physical development without more than a few sounds left all of us gobsmacked.

    Certainly Shelley would have been aware of the callousness of men towards women — not only did Percy leave his wife for her, but her half-sister Claire had a horrible brief relationship with Byron and a child who was taken from her and abandoned afterwards by Byron.

    There’s a lot of nature vs. nurture in the novel — the Creature is innocent at first and learns his cruelty and his viciousness from the humans he encounters.

    I agree, the rape was gratuitous; how much of it was due to a male playwright and the influence of things like GoT on TV, I don’t know, but I suspect.

    But I was heartened and pleased to have run across a group of four teenagers — I’d guess between 16 – 18 — in the hallway after the performance who were enthusiastically dissecting the performances and planning with equal enthusiasm to see the reverse casting the next week. And they didn’t mind talking to (obviously) older adults about it.

  6. I must have read the original novel at some point, but I had forgotten that there is a framing device — the letters of the ship captain! For your amusement, a different take on it, from the humor columnist at the Washington POST: