Carole Woddis reviewed this for us back in 2011 and, allowing for what happens in the transfer to film, what she said then still stands as a review of the production. I did see Benedict Cumberbatch then,but not Jonny Lee Miller so I watched that version on line. The two performances are very different, although it seems that so far the Cumberbatch Creature – they alternated the role of Creature and Frankenstein – has scored the most hits. There is, I think, good reason for that. When it was staged they were probably equal in their audience attracting power, but in the years since Cumberbatch has become, among other things, Sherlock, an actor with a following who would see him in pretty well anything, and a film star, while Miller, whose film career has been lessm is an actor who is better known from of all things his American television career in the updated version of the Sherlock Holmes with Lucy Liu as Watson. The massive viewing figures for the National live screenings of the Cumberbitch Creature probably has more to do with the existence of the notoriousCumberbitches
However, that is by the by. As a record they are worth watching although whether, having seen one, you want to sit through the play all over again is debatable. Filming does change things. The opening scene in the theatre with the Creature being born from that strange drum was absolutely gripping, on screen it loses its power to a considerable extent, and also the shifting of the camera viewpoint disturbs.
In the theatre you lose yourself in the action on stage, you are the camera, and the theatre itself becomes something you almost forget – whereas when the camera suddenly pulls back on the film there are the Olivier concrete walls which are not surrounding you as you watch. The effect is to wrench you away from what you are watching. The theatrical effect of the birth is not a cinematic one, so that what chills, amazes, enthrals when seen on stage seen on film can have a very different impact. Take, for instance, the scene with the Creature crawling over the grass which is seen to be an actor on a wrinkled, patently false strip of turf.
But that said records like these for all their defects are of great value – there are performers of the past it would be wonderful to see in their great roles who were never filmed, especially those who could not be filmed. The great actors of pre cinema times only exist in the words written about them.
It is not like comparing a film and a remake, which are always very different animals, but a chance to see something from a different place and how the same cast respond to the different leads in their respective pairings and how the performances do affect the balance of the play. A duel of monsters is certainly what it is, their respective Frankensteins being rather less impressive.
Photograoph: The National Theatre.