Danny Boyle's (28 Days Later) stage version of Frankenstein certainly starts boldly enough: the infamous creature emerges fully born from a circular embryo, then flails through a lifetime of motor skills during the play's opening moments, from the roly-poly grasping of an infant all the way to the awkwardly gangly run of a young boy at play. The doctor appears briefly, only to violently chase the creature into the streets where a train spewing white-hot sparks grinds to a halt in the middle of the stage. Impressive. The set dressing is minimalist, but noticeably expensive, with thousands of lightbulbs hanging from the rafters and a motorized platform (the real star of the show) that rotates and spits fire.
I'm not sure if Frankenstein ever gets any better than those opening minutes. Under Danny Boyle's direction (from a script by Nick Dear), the razzle-dazzle stage gimmicks continually upstage the raw material. That's a real shame, because Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch are acting their hearts out here (Miller as the doctor and Cumberbatch as the monster in the version I saw -- the actors alternate roles nightly). Familiarity with the material is mostly to blame.
Dear's script hits all of the classic notes, from the moment of the monster's birth through its tragic end in the Arctic Circle, but he fails to make the story resonate beyond its familiar themes. Frankenstein is still relevant, and always will as long as bad fathers continue to neglect their children, but it all feels so surface-level here. There are plenty of versions of the story that exist only to entertain (and this one entertains just fine), but watching a great cast with a big budget and an acclaimed director just go through the motions -- without any real emotional depth -- is needlessly frustrating.
Naomie Harris comes the closest to bringing something completely new to the table as Elizabeth, Frankenstein's cousin and fiancee. It's a bit of out-of-the-box casting that pays off, and whatever distraction might be caused by the color of her skin (in a story that's traditionally told as lily-white) is erased almost immediately by the energy in her performance. Her Elizabeth is downright spunky, and her conversation with the creature toward the end of the play is a strong example of how you can make something that's been done many times before feel new and alive (due credit goes to Mr. Cumberbatch as well). Boyle also casts George Harris against type as Frankenstein's father, but it doesn't reap the same rewards. It's confusing and Harris' thick Caribbean accent works against his every scene. It's not the fault of Harris, but of a director too seemingly preoccupied with the special effects.
Ultimately, Boyle's Frankenstein is an ambitious near-miss. The devotion to Shelley's material translates into a text with no surprises, so the director makes up new surprises with elaborate stage mechanics. Sets rise, spin, and descend through a circular pit; a house with transparent walls lowers from the rafters; and at one point it even rains on stage. Visually, it's awesome stuff. But does it offer anything deeper than that? Not really. Fittingly enough, the story of Frankenstein is still waiting to be invigorated with a spark of new life.