NT Live - Frankenstein

Danny Boyle's seminal stage adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic beamed live into Queen's Film Theatre

Tickets to see Danny Boyle’s feted production of Frankenstein, adapted from Mary Shelley's original gothic novel by Nick Dear, have sold out for every performance of the production at the National Theatre in London, and in participating NT Live cinemas across the world.

In Belfast eager dramaphiles eschew the St Patrick’s Day celebrations outside to pack into the Queen’s Film Theatre for a chance to see the play. After all, who needs green beer when you have Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller switching characters in the one of the most exciting plays of the year?

The performance - streamed live into QFT - is on a night when Cumberbatch plays the Creature. He trades characters with Miller nightly, both of them serving time as created and creator. It sounds like an interesting conceit, but watching the actors perform you can see how the experience has profoundly affected the roles they play. Each character is a funhouse reflection of the other.

In a conversation with Elizabeth, his ill-fated fiancée, Frankenstein boasts that he created life. Yet it is more fission than procreation. The Creature is far more akin to Frankenstein’s monstrous Siamese twin than his offspring – spiritually rather than physically dependent. What Frankenstein has the Creature lacks and vice versa.

Cumberbatch’s performance of the Creature is vital and passionate. The Creature wants. From the moment he is born – sliding reluctantly from his simulated womb – he wants with single-minded focus.

The audience’s first experience of him is the drawn-out choreography of the Creature’s first steps. In his struggle to attain his feet he - it? - flops gracelessly across the stage, the contortions of Cumberbatch’s lanky form violent enough to make you wince

On first viewing the scene seems over-long, but looking back it successfully cements the Creature in the audience’s mind. Physical, driven and - for a long time - vulnerable.

In comparison, Miller’s Frankenstein is cold and oddly lacking in ambition or drive. Whatever dire compulsion drove him to create his Creature is spent and has left him empty. He isn't inhuman - he feels guilt and grief - but there seems to be no depth to the charater.

His encounters with Elizabeth (played sweetly but with a hint of steel by Naomi Harris) leave him uncomfortable and off-balance. He knows what she desires of him, but is incapable or unwilling to give it to her.

In another odd piece of mirroring, each character bonds easier with the other’s betrothed than with their own. Disturbing though the scene between Elizabeth and the Creature is, the connection between them is palpable and immediate. Even knowing what is to come, it is tempting to think that this time – in this adaptation – it might play out differently.

Meanwhile Frankenstein, although repelled by Elizabeth’s advances, is lewdly, unwholesomely fascinated with the corpse he reanimated to be the Creature’s bride. It is all the more uncomfortable to watch since the Bride is not yet sentient, simply meat that sighs compliantly into shape in an eerily puppet-like turn by Andreea Padurariu.

Masterful though Cumberbatch and Miller’s performances are, the play is very nearly stolen by Mark Tildesley's set. Under a thick canopy of bulbs – lights flickering and flashing blindingly in response to the actions on stage – the elegant set ticks its way through scene changes like an oversized pocket watch, walls rising from the floor and grass rolling out on tracks. It is beautiful to watch and the end result is always, and appropriately, just a little off-kilter.

There are a few off-notes in the play. Just after the Creature is driven out of Frankenstein’s lab comes a beautifully staged and precision choreographed song-and-dance number with some steampunk looking ladies and gentleman. This scene, however, seems to have no actual purpose other than looking beautiful and being intricate. Perhaps it is representative of the irony of shunning such deporable creations while embracing the industry that makes men into machines. Whatever the intention, it is never made quite clear.

There were also a few moments that are played for humor – or are accidentally humorous – that feel somewhat off. The scene wherein Frankenstein informs his father that he is leaving before his brother’s funeral, or his own wedding, is particularly guilty of this. The audience chuckles at the delivery, yet it seems to steal the charge from the performance that had been building until that point.

Despite those few quibbles, Boyle and Dear’s Frankenstein is one of the seminal and innovative interpretations of the original work. There is a visceral power to this production that can’t be denied and both Cumberbatch and Miller turn in well-crafted and well-considered performances, supported by a very gifted cast. It is, perhaps, too early in the year to be making sweeping statements about the best play of 2011, but Frankenstein would certainly be in the running.

Check CultureNorthernIreland's What's On guide to find out when the next NT Live broadcast is.