Director Danny Boyle has always been drawn to people at extremes — whether the Scottish drug addicts of "Trainspotting," the survivors of a zombie apocalypse of "28 Days Later" or the Mumbai street children fighting for survival in "Slumdog Millionaire."
So it's apt that for his return to theater after 15 years he's chosen "Frankenstein," Mary Shelley's horror tale about a scientist who becomes a god, by creating life, and a monster who is fully human.
At heart, and especially in Nick Dear's pared-down script, it's an elemental fable: Victor Frankenstein makes a man in his own image, only to discover he has created a beast. But is the monster his creation, or himself?
Boyle's production for London's National Theatre has two great strengths — it's visually stunning, and it has mesmerizing central performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, who take turns playing the roles of Frankenstein and his Creature.
It's no surprise that the director who plunged filmgoers down a toilet in "Trainspotting" and made viewers faint as James Franco hacked off his arm in "127 Hours" has created a show with great visual verve.
The staging by Boyle and set designer Mark Tildelsley features fire, water, snow and ice; bursts of blinding light from 3,500 bulbs; and a clanging steampunk-style steam train on tracks that stretch up through the audience. Boyle — working with frequent musical collaborators Underworld — understands the power of sound. Snatches of music, song, industrial noise and a clanging bell all help create a mood that, like the Creature's emerging consciousness, veers between delight and despair.
For all this flair, the play's most powerful scene features a lone actor naked on stage. The opening minutes are riveting, as they show the Creature coming twitchingly to life and learning to crawl, sit, stand, walk and eventually run.
This monster is, as Dear has stressed, no "eight-foot freak" with bolts in his neck. He is bruised and laced with scars but recognizably human, both muscular and vulnerable. (Literally: During his writhing opening scene, some audience members worried about splinters).
The show's opening is so compelling, it's almost a shame when words intervene.
Dear, whose work includes the plays "Zenobia" and "The Art of Success" and the screen adaptation of Jane Austen's "Persuasion," has pared Shelley's novel of some of its subplots and digressions, but this only helps concentrate its power as a parable about fathers and sons, original sin and the responsibility of the creator.
"Why did you abandon me?" asks the Creature, who does terrible things but is, in the end, only looking for love.
Less successfully, the dialogue can seem a bit flat-footed, with minor characters including a pair of beggars and a grave-digging Scottish duo appearing briefly to offer heavy-handed comic relief.
The supporting parts are underwritten, though Naomie Harris makes the most of the role of Victor's fiancee Elizabeth, who treats the Creature with Christian kindness. Karl Johnson is memorable as the blind old man who teaches him to read, write, quote Milton and debate morality.
In the end, though, everything is a sideshow to the two central performances. The gamble of having Miller and Cumberbatch alternate roles pays rich rewards for anyone who can see the play twice — far fewer, probably, than would like to. The play's initial run is sold out, but people around the world can watch two performances screened in movie theaters during March as part of the National Theatre Live series.
The physically and emotional taxing role of the Creature demands an actor run through all of life in an evening, beginning with the innocence of an infant and experiencing hunger, pain, anger, desire and love for the first time.
Both actors excel. Miller has the edge in depicting the Creature's frustration and rage, while Cumberbatch conveys a touch more of his delight at discovering the beauty of nature and the power of his own body and mind.
Cumberbatch — Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's hit series "Sherlock" — gives Victor Frankenstein some of that character's intellectual genius and emotional stupidity. Miller's scientist is a more brooding sort.
In both permutations the actors have a strong rapport, which makes for a powerful finale — the two men trapped in a doomed, unbreakable embrace amid the Arctic wastes.