Benedict Cumberbatch & Jonny Lee Miller’s Frankenstein Is An Absolute Masterpiece

“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”

During these unprecedented times, the Arts community is doing what it can to help make our stay home experiences more fulfilling. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and Love Never Dies were both available on YouTube, and till May 7 and May 8, you will be able to catch National Theatre’s Frankenstein, which has both Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the titular role. How is this possible?

Well, basically both men learn the roles of Frankenstein and his creature, and so for each production, until it starts you won’t know who is playing Frankenstein and who is playing the creature. The difficulty of this must be emphasized, as it requires both actors to know both parts equally well, and the rest of the cast need to tailor their responses accordingly since each man wouldn’t give the exact same interpretation of these characters. Symbolically this is also an interesting direction, since it establishes the close relationship between the creator and the created, and how one needs the other to give them purpose.

I watched both versions (as any theatre fan would) since I was curious as to how Cumberbatch and Miller interpreted their dual roles, and it was fascinating to see how these interpretations then affected the dynamic established between the two characters. Cumberbatch’s creature focuses more on the physicality of the role, and this is especially challenging at the beginning moments of the play, where we see the creature born and learning how to walk. Cumberbatch relishes the challenge, tumbling about on the ground far longer than Miller’s creature. And even after he gains an education, he still retains a creature-like movement, crouching lower to the ground as he eloquently quotes Milton. Thus, the audience is always reminded that he isn’t quite human, playacting and mimicking more than truly being.

Miller’s creature is different; he limps and stumbles about, not quite in control over his limbs, constantly salivating, anguished and a deep ennui inundating his person. In Miller’s creature we see the Adam of Milton’s Paradise Lost, but a broken one. He is the creation spurned and abandoned, not cherished and loved. It is easier to sympathize with Miller’s creature because of this, which is no easy feat to accomplish given how the creature murdered De Lacey and his family after their rejection of him.

He also murdered and raped Frankenstein’s wife Elizabeth, the only person to ever show him a modicum of care and concern. In Miller’s portrayal of the role, there’s a keen sense that the creature did not want to commit such acts, but never learned how to deal with his rage in a manner that didn’t involve death and destruction. After all, he is merely repeating what has been done to him (as well as what his study of History has revealed to him), returning unkindness shown in the most tragic way.

Cumberbatch plays up the hubris of the creature, one who identifies more with the fallen angel Lucifer than Adam, a creation who wishes to one-up his creator at every step. He is less defeated, more challenging and defiant, which allows him to be a perfect counterpart to Miller’s Frankenstein, who is more emotional, seemingly driven mad by the guilt of his actions. He reacts more violently to the creature’s animation in the first part of the play, repenting his actions yet passionately curious about the creature and its desires.

Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein is more detached, distant – the consummate man of science. We sense that he is observing everything, weighing, balancing, and through his depiction, we see the hubris that sometimes exists at the heart of science. Science deals with exploration, traversing the unknown, and Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein shows us the outcome of science used for reasons of pride and power. Why did he create the creature? Just to prove he could, an act that shows a defiance to God and the natural order of things. But that is science’s role, to push boundaries, dancing on the line of transgression.

For me, having read the novel all those years ago, the greatest source of conflict in the source material is when the creature requests that Frankenstein build a female creature for him, promising to leave him alone should he do so. On one hand, we relate to the creature’s feelings of loneliness and can understand the request for a mate. We also empathize with Frankenstein’s dilemma; should he give the creature his desire so that he can be left alone, or should he refuse and continue to live knowing the creature exists somewhere in his periphery? In Shelley’s book, Frankenstein’s fear was always that giving the creature a mate would allow it to reproduce, and these creations might go on to create more chaos.

This is slightly different in the play, for Frankenstein goes as far as to create the female creature, but then destroys her when he hears the creature speak of love. The creature saying that he comprehends love and will express this sentiment for the female creature is what convinces Frankenstein that he cannot go through with the creation. Love, he says, is volatile and chaotic, and it will lead the creature to more paths of uncertainty, which Frankenstein simply cannot risk.

Ultimately, Frankenstein pays the price for having chased a God-like dream, caught in a vicious cycle of pursuit with a creature whom he never wanted to exist, but now has to spend the rest of his life tied to, much like how the creature may loathe his creator, yet this is the very person who helps in alleviating his loneliness.

The set of the play isn’t very elaborate, but it goes a long way in enhancing the themes of the play. There is a whole row of dangling light bulbs cascading down the ceiling above the stage, reminding one of the nature of the cosmos, which suits the play’s exploration of creation and offers the perfect backdrop for the constant references to celestial images (the creature compares himself to the solitary moon quite a fair bit). The use of light bulbs also suitably reflect the use of electricity, which was used by Frankenstein to animate the creature.

As the cast came on stage for the curtain call, and I clapped along with everyone else, I reflected on how the play enhanced Shelley’s text in such a brilliant way. It makes us wonder at our own creation, created by the union of our parents, but from which hand did the spark of life arrive? Were we created with a purpose, a fate, or just so someone could prove that they could?

Not to mention it offers the creature a greater sense of agency and voice, since the original text is told through Frankenstein’s lens. We admire the creature’s mind and we pity his isolation, seeing his humanity rather than his monstrous deviations. For all the rejection the creature faces, he still clings valiantly to life, reflecting that while life “may only be an accumulation of anguish”, it is still worth defending – a relatable sentiment.

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