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A CurtainUp London London Review

You have been meddling with the natural order and brought chaos - all because you worship the gods of electricity and gas! — Elizabeth
Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature (Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
When Mary Shelley published her novel anonymously in 1818 it had grown out of a short story written when she was only 18 and part of the evening's amusement when staying in Switzerland with her then lover, later her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and her step sister Claire Clairmont who was having an affair with Lord Byron. "The season was cold and rainy, and in the evening we crowded round a blazing fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts. . . Two other friends and myself agreed to write each a tale founded on some supernatural occurrence."

Whereas Shelley's point may have been about the interference with the natural order in a scientist imitating Godly creation, in Danny Boyle's spectacular production it becomes a study of cruelty in our treatment of otherness. If it were not interesting enough to have Danny Boyle back directing in the theatre after his film successes with Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting amongst others, this production has been devised with the two leads playing The Creature and Frankenstein alternately. Thus, some nights Benedict Cumberbatch will play the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller, Victor Frankenstein and vice versa. Though some critics saw both I chose to see Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as the Scientist. < But that was before a virus struck down several of the cast, including Cumberbatch himself.

In the event the understudy played the role of the Scientist and Jonny Lee Miller stepped up to play the Creature, I am assured iof by those who have seen both that it was a happy event, but one I shall only be able to confirm after I have seen Cumberbatch play the Creature on the cinema live streaming on 17th March. The twinning of the roles may have been meant to underline the point that the Creature is Victor's alter ego.

The birthing room of the Creature forms the opening scene to the sound of a tolling bell. From a pupa like drum stretched tight and lit by myriad suspended, cascading light bulbs and heat lamps, we see the electrifying struggle for birth of the naked monster, gashes in his flesh crudely stitched together. Without a midwife and we ask why is the Scientist not here for the birth, the Creature struggles first to be born and then to push himself to standing, writhing and straining and grunting strange pre speech utterances. It is the most compelling of opening scenes, lasting a full quarter of an hour, hypnotic and somehow being there at the birth and seeing him gasp for life, elicits our sympathy.

As if birth itself wasn't the most dangerous experience, on rails right into the audience, a train thunders in through smoke, sulphurous fumes lit yellow, giant cogs and ironwork, men in goggles become machinery, automata, forming part of the engine with synchronised mechanical movement. Fireworks create welding like sparks of metal on hot metal. This is exciting, incredibly effective and innovative staging. The Creature has found a red cloak to wrap himself in but it cannot protect him from being stoned and vilified. Again and again there are visual images we will remember, a cave of light, an arch drawn across it, birds taking flight and choral music from Africa blending the sacred and the jungle. Here in the countryside, rain will wash the Creature and he will eat grass.

The Creature is befriended by a old, blind man, De Lacey (Karl Johnson) who teaches him to talk and read, verses from Milton and Keats and predicts that the Creature will find a female to love. A dream sequence is choreographed with the fantasy female creature. When they see the Creature, although his appearance isn't that horrific, De Lacey's son and daughter in law persecute him. This prompts a killing spree and the Creature leaves to find the Scientist whose journal he has and in search of a female creature. The Scientist, Victor Frankenstein (Daniel Ings) is persuaded and travels to a remote Scottish island to construct a female but later Victor reneges on the bargain. There is some interaction between Elizabeth (understudy Lizzie Winkler) Victor's kindly fiancée but the Creature kills her on her wedding day and is pursued across the world by Victor.

Despite the murder of innocents, two that have befriended him and one a child, our sympathies lie not with his human creator but with the inhuman Creature. There is almost no sympathy for Victor although Daniel Ings is excellent in the role. This may be because of his late entry into the play: we don't see Victor for most of the first hour and he doesn't seem to reflect on the consequences of his scientific experimentation. Victor's interaction with Elizabeth his fiancée is devoid of emotion. The Creature on the other hand recognises fault but blames it on his human teachers. He identifies with Satan rather than Adam from Paradise Lost and later says, "I am good at the art of assimilation. I have watched, and listened, and learnt. At first I knew nothing at all. Slowly I learnt the ways of humans: how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate. And at the feet of my master, I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns: I finally learnt how to lie.&uot;

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A new play by Nick Dear based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Directed by Danny Boyle

Starring: The twinning of the roles may have been meant to underline the point that the Creature is Victor's alter ego, John Killoran, Steven Elliott, Lizzie Winkler, Daniel Millar, Naomie Harris, Haydon Downing/William Nye, Jared Richard, George Harris, Martin Chamberlain, John Stahl, Andreea Padurariu, John Killoran, Josie Daxter
Set Designed by Mark Tildesley
Costumes designed by Suttirat Anne Lalarb
Lighting: Bruno Poet
Music: Underworld
Director of Movement: Toby Sedgwick
Fights by Kate Waters
Running time: One hour 50 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 2nd May 2011. Sold out until 17th April but some day seats available and booking for the last two weeks opens to the public online from 10th March 2011.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 26th February 2011 matinee performance at The Olivier, National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)

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