Frankenstein, Monster Swap Roles; Bland ‘Spelling Bee’: Review

Benedict Cumberbatch in "Frankenstein" adapted by Nick Dear from the 1818 novel by Mary Shelly. Cumberbatch alternates with his co-star Jonny Lee Miller in the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature. Photographer: Catherine Ashmore/National Theatre via Bloomberg

A new theatrical adaptation of “Frankenstein” in London has a well-loved story, an Oscar-winning director and two electrifying actors as the leads. All that and a gimmick, too. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

The gimmick? Benedict Cumberbatch (hero of the BBC’s “Sherlock’’ series) and buff film actor Jonny Lee Miller alternate as Frankenstein and The Creature. One night it’s Miller who opens the show by plopping naked out of a pulsating membranous sac as Cumberbatch recoils in horror. The next night, vice-versa.

I saw both, and the palm goes -- by a margin -- to Cumberbatch. Miller endows The Creature with pathos and heart, and he is physically exciting to watch. Cumberbatch, however, brings greater range and depth: He can be both funny and vicious. And as Frankenstein, his touch of madness is compelling in a truly maniacal way.

Whichever of the leads you see, you’re in for a treat. Danny Boyle (director of “Slumdog Millionaire’’) fills the Olivier Theatre with energy, and he uses the stage’s massive hydraulic revolve to whisk us in a blink from a prosperous 1820s drawing room to the wilds of Scotland’s Orkney Islands.

Style Mash-Up

Boyle employs an ambitious mix of theatrical styles. The first scene is a long physical-theater affair in which the inarticulate Creature flops naked around the empty stage with pitiful involuntary jerks until he learns to walk.

Suddenly a screaming steam locomotive bursts through the back of the set, nearly mowing him down. Its passengers alight and begin to beat and taunt the poor creature. Technology brings speed, power, innovation, new life. It can bring brutality and dehumanization too. As a visual metaphor, it sums up the whole thrust of the play.

The moral and theological ambiguities in Nick Dear’s crackling adaptation are as sharp as in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. What is the responsibility of a life-giver to his handiwork? Does the Creature have a soul? What is the nature of humanity? Does God exist? The confrontations between Frankenstein and The Creature (once he has learned to speak) bubble with intellectual speculation.

So far, so Mary Shelley. What Dear and Boyle add to the mix are Gothic “Jekyll and Hyde’’-type hints that the Creature is really a figment of Frankenstein’s personality. They never appear side by side in the presence of others, and the double casting increases the strange ambiguity. “You and I are one,’’ says Frankenstein at the end.

Cutesy Dialogue

That said, not every scene is written as sharply as it might be. A cutesy dialogue between Frankenstein and the child-ghost of his dead brother about the purpose of creation could be cut. The support acting is variable too: George Harris is stiff as a board as Frankenstein’s father. If those drawbacks take the edge off the experience a tad, they don’t pull from its overall emotional and intellectual sweep.

“Frankenstein,” sponsored by Coutts & Co., will be broadcast to movie theaters globally as part of the National Theatre Live series. Rating: ***


On another of the National Theatre’s stages, “Greenland,’’ about climate change, provokes an equally powerful question: When is a play not a play?

Anyone who has sat through two hours of hectoring agitprop, larded with dramatically moribund monologues and hammerblow lectures straight to audience will know the answer: When it’s a turkey.

Written by four playwrights (a commissioning blunder if ever there was one), the show interweaves several unconnected stories. A young girl becomes an activist, a climate-change modeller falls in love with a civil servant and a lonely arctic scientist chats with his younger self. Funnily enough, they all actually end up saying the same thing.

The cast is talented, and the direction lively. If only the characters could just step out of mouthpiece mode for a second, or stop representing a preconceived idea, it might be worth watching. They don’t, and it isn’t.

Even the converted can’t take this much preaching. Rating: *

“Frankenstein’’ and “Greenland’’ are in repertory at the National Theatre. Information, including the “Frankenstein” telecast: +44-20-7452-3000;

‘Spelling Bee’

For lovers of high school Americana and general DayGlo perkiness, “The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee’’ will be a magnet. For anyone else, its appeal is less clear.

The 2005 revue-style Broadway musical arrives at the Donmar Warehouse in a new production by Jamie Lloyd. Six young contestants want to win their local spelling bees. There’s the overachiever, the goof, the bully, the shy one, and so on, every box ticked. Their musical numbers are pretty much as formulaic as their characterization suggests.

Bits of spurious emotional angst are thrown in to the sugary mix like chunks of cheap chocolate into cookie dough. “My mom is distant,” “My gay dads demand too much,” “My family thinks I’m dumb.” The tone, which ranges from straightforward pre-teen cuteness to songs about unfortunate boners, is disturbingly mixed, and ad-lib gags about the current UK political scene -- huh? -- only add to the confusion.

There are some very energetic production numbers, and the cast all give it their best shot. Occasionally it spells out m-o-d-e-r-a-t-e-l-y a-m-u-s-i-n-g. Rating: **

Through April 2 at the Donmar Warehouse. Information: +44-844-871-7624;

What The Stars Mean:

****        Excellent
***         Very Good
**          Average
*           Not So Good
(No stars)  Avoid

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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