Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘Frankenstein’/Photo © Catherine Ashmore/National Theatre
The film of Danny Boyle’s theatrical staging of Frankenstein is in two hundred U.S. theaters June 6-7, after a limited but successful screen outing in March 2011. Adapted by Nick Dear (“Persuasion”) from Mary Shelley’s classic novel, the play starred Jonny Lee Miller (“Trainspotting”) and Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock”), who alternated the lead roles of the doctor and the creature every night. The acclaimed ten-week run at London’s National Theatre sold out, as did the screenings beamed to cinemas by the National Theatre Live program, an initiative to film live performances and broadcast them via satellite worldwide.
Though better known now for his wide-ranging and stylish filmography (“28 Days Later,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), Boyle began his directing career in theater before branching out to television and, eventually, cinema. But Frankenstein remained a dream project and, in the early nineties, he drafted a stage version with Dear, but shelved it after Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 movie. Approached by the National’s artistic director Sir Nicholas Hytner in 2002, Boyle suggested a production, but did not begin working on it until after 2010’s “127 Hours.”
In this month’s British Vogue, Boyle cites Frankenstein as an influence on his direction of the opening ceremony of the forthcoming 2012 Summer Olympics in London — an intriguing proposition. (Though, disappointingly, he explains that, in the ceremony, “We don’t reanimate dead creatures.” Which would be a very Danny Boyle touch.) Large-scale and visually complex (the gorgeous lighting design is a show in itself), his Frankenstein draws upon the Gothic and the Romantic elements of Shelley’s work, from its startling opening sequence of the creature’s “birth” to its wondrous celebration of nature to its move into darkly atmospheric horror. Accompanying this is an original score by British electronic duo Underworld, who contributed a song to Boyle’s “Trainspotting” and will also collaborate with him on the Olympic opening ceremony.
Visual and aural splendor notwithstanding, the reason to see the play is its central pair. Boyle always intended to have two actors share the roles and Dear’s dramatization accords equal time to Victor Frankenstein and his creation, who gets less attention in the novel. In lesser hands, it could have come off as gimmicky, but the complementary Miller and Cumberbatch are electric in their alternating roles. (That said, if you can only catch one version, see Cumberbatch as the doctor — clearly rooted in his Sherlock Holmes — and Miller as the questing, humanized creature.) The knowledge of their dual performances gives the play’s focus on creator and created — the other storylines feel incidental by comparison — greater darkness in their parallel narratives, twinned characters reduced by tragedy until they are left only with each other in a bleak symbiosis of choice and consequence.
Watch the trailer for the play: