I've now seen both versions of the National Theatre's Frankenstein at the movies, and wanted to record my thoughts. This is going to get long and spoilery.
To keep this from getting insanely long and needlessly complicated, I'm using these abbreviations:
BCC = Benedict Cumberbatch's Creature
BCV = Benedict Cumberbatch's Victor Frankenstein
JLMC = Jonny Lee Miller's Creature
JLMV = Jonny Lee Miller's Victor Frankenstein
Let's get started.
I admit that I've read Frankenstein many, many times and admired a lot of what Mary Shelley did in it without ever liking the novel. Victor Frankenstein, in particular, needs to be punched in the throat and drop-kicked off a cliff. This play, by Nick Dear, is certainly not a stronger or better piece of writing, and in fact I'd argue that it really only serves the two main characters of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein.
That opening scene: Right from the get-go, there are significant differences between BCC and JLMC. BCC is far more awkward in his birth-throes, takes longer to get moving, and has an almost jagged, punctuated equilibrium-style of learning. I don't recall seeing him sit up straight, for instance, which JLMC did after about two minutes of writhing and crawling. JLMC seemed to connect the dots more smoothly in general, recognizing different parts of his own body fairly quickly and building his knowledge step by step: from flopping and writhing to crawling to sitting to tumbling to standing to walking. BCC seemed more fascinated by different parts of himself, not realizing they were him, and unsure how his feet, for instance, might aid him in walking.
Perhaps it is the difference in their body types - JLM being slightly shorter and definitely stockier than BC - but JLMC seemed stronger right from the beginning. When JLMC first begins to walk and does laps around the stage, the movement gets fluid very quickly - he is learning with astonishing speed. It's almost as if JLMC is relearning rather than learning - he knows what needs to be done and sets himself the mighty task of achieving his goals. BCC, on the other hand, starts walking with a distinctly duck-like gait, splay-footed and bum-wiggly and endearingly awkward and new; he does his laps, gaining speed and coordination, but it's not easy for him, he's shivering, and he tries to get back into his womb.
While the Creature lies in front of his womb, face-down and panting, Victor Frankenstein enters. JLMV, I have to say, did not work for me at all in this scene. It's clear from the attention he pays that side of the stage that he sees his Creature no longer in the womb, yet he acts surprised moments later (even before verifying that the Creature is alive). JLMV's reactions all seemed oddly timed and strangely muted in this scene - it was as if he expected the experiment to work but not to be so disappointing. When he touched the Creature and discovered it still breathed, he started shouting at it to stay where it was like he expected the Creature to understand his words. BCV was very different - he entered the scene convincingly sweaty (stains on his shirt at the chest, back, and armpits) and seemed utterly taken aback to see his Creature on the ground instead of in the womb. When BCV yelled at the Creature to stay back, it seemed less like a command and more like an instinct to keep himself safe - there was no expectation that the Creature would understand.
Despite what I just said about BCV's sweat-soaked shirt, I think the difference between the two Victors can be summarized with Edison's declaration that "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration." JLM played Victor as a man of learning, who buried himself in his books in his determination to know everything. His quest left him no time for any joy in life other than being right. He is the 99% of the equation. BC played the 1% - his Victor is a prodigy, someone who doesn't even know what he's capable of until he's done it, in a frenzied whirl of energy. Despite his scorn for what he sees as outdated reverence for God, BC's Victor seems sometimes like an instrument of something - some would say divinity, he would say his own genius - working through him, so that it's less about his concerted efforts and more about what he can achieve. (The movie Amadeus is how I kept thinking of them: JLMV = Salieri, BCV = Mozart.)
That's why BCV can look so honestly taken aback by the sight of his living Creature, and why JLMV does not linger on his surprise for very long - JLMV knew what he was doing and BCV did not. Those choices also make BCV seem much younger than JLMV - and it's worth noting that BCC seemed far younger than JLMC as well.
Just like JLMV, JLMC seemed very conscious of the necessity of knowledge, and pursued that quest with the same fanaticism as his creator. JLMC's speech was much more distinctly enunciated than BCC's, just as his movements were more fluid and less jerky. JLMC also observed things that seemed to pass BCC by entirely - JLMC was curious about the campfire and wailed when it died out, while BCC seemed entirely intent on the food the fire was cooking and not to notice when the fire burned out. Again, BCC seemed younger than JLMC - BCC wanted that food and had no interest in anything else, as if he could focus on only one thing at a time, while JLMC seemed to want to soak in as much knowledge as possible at all times.
Though JLMC, with his determination, missed out on a lot of the joy BCC found - BCC found such simple, un-self-conscious delight in the sound of birds, the breeze of a book's pages being flipped, calling back to both of those moments repeatedly. In the scenes with De Lacey too, BCC is at once a hyperactive child and a playful mimic, imitating all of the old man's actions and gestures with a sense of fun. JLMC did not play humor - even the scene where he's trying to gauge if he can get away with keeping one eye on the blind man while examining the falling snow seemed less about fun and more about curiosity (and also rebelling against De Lacey's authority in a very small way). Again, JLMC spoke much more clearly than BCC, so JLMC seemed to have learned more, to become an adult in far fewer steps. A moment that really struck me was when De Lacey reached out to touch the Creature's head: the Creature recoils and De Lacey explains that he sees with his hands and asks, this time, for permission. JLMC grants that permission and keeps eye contact with De Lacey; BCC bows his head entirely, making himself completely vulnerable.
I think that's the difference between the two Creatures: JLMC evidently felt himself to have a purpose, a reason to acquire knowledge, a plan almost all along, while BCC took each experience (birdsong, sunrise) as its own thing and reacted to it in isolation. It seems too simple to say JLMC was motivated by rage and determination and BCC by delight and joy, but that does convey what I saw. The line the Creature speaks, describing the moon as "solitary like me," thus cuts differently depending on which actor is behind it: JLMC says it with the understanding that he alone is outside of society and a desire to find some sort of community with his creator, while BCC states it as a fact of his life and something he's just beginning (with De Lacey) to think might not always have to be true.
Even much later, when Victor offers the Creature the Female that he's nearly through creating, the actors' choices stay consistent. Ordered by Victor to explain what love feels like, the Creature says, "It feels like everything is boiling over and spilling out of me; it feels like my lungs are on fire, and my heart is a hammer, and I feel like I can do anything...I feel like I can do anything in the world..." JLMC, who understands what he's been taught about human nature, speaks the words while looking at the Female but keeps darting his eyes back to Victor, to check on the effect his words are having. BCC, whose emotions are always his guide instead of his intellect (though he has learned just as much), keeps his gaze fixed on the Female, yearning for her openly and without disguise. Again, BCC does not enunciate clearly even by the end of the play - he speaks throughout with marked difficulty and effort; JLMC's smoother diction - interrupted by consistent tics - is more suited to persuasion than the earnestness BCC employs.
And again, the actors keep certain characteristics in both roles - BCV, boy genius, does not learn any more than BCC, Creature of instinct, does; JLMC and JLMV both acquire and hoard knowledge with the understanding that it can be made to equal power. That's played in interesting ways, the most striking of which is that in the first scenes where the Creature and Victor meet in Geneva, JLMV strides and points and declaims while BCV falls to his knees. To see a creator kneeling before his creation is very powerful, and adds weight to Victor's lines about remembering (rather dazedly) the sweat and heat and inspiration that led to the Creature's creation. The line "You were an equation" is spoken by JLMV with scorn (how dare the Creature claim to be anything other than what Victor created him to be?) and BCV with disbelief (he still can't believe that something his brain came up with is living and breathing and thinking in front of him). It's as if JLMV said "Look at my creation!" and BCV said "Look at my creation!"
This is already too long, but I do want to mention just two more points. Elizabeth - this is a thankless role, burdened with a lot of girl-power attitude and clunky lines, but Naomie Harris makes a valiant effort. She's more adrift with JLMV, in part because he is so cold to anything but his beloved science, but even with BCV, who just seems not to be adult enough to offer her a relationship, I wondered why a girl so beautiful and curious and loving consented to marry a cousin who has no real interest in her. When Victor says he loves her, JLMV seemed to be saying it because he knows he should and BCV because he does (if only in a cousinly, why-do-things-have-to-change way). There was one moment I was surprised to see played by BCV and not by JLMV: when the Creature asks Victor for a Female (as ugly as himself so that he cannot be rejected) and Victor agrees to create again but says that a bride must be beautiful and sets himself the task of making a Female who can "pass" in regular society as an ordinary woman instead of a created one - when he next sees Elizabeth, who starts speaking of their wedding, BCV openly evaluates her beauty as inspiration for his next project. JLMV should have done that too, I think, though perhaps he is too blind to Elizabeth's beauty to register it as a model.
And lastly, to end on a shallow note, I really enjoyed some of Victor's clothing choices (though Ben's bum peeked out distractingly through the long slit in his wedding-coat), and BC does seem to have fun with twirly coats in general. And it was lovely to see that ginger hair on the big screen!
If you've made it this far, feel free to let me know if you agree or disagree.
Also, not to get hopes up for a DVD, but this time, in the intro, Emma Freud specifically said that the ten-minute clip that was shown before the filmed stage production was part of a longer documentary that would be made available at some point. Surely they wouldn't put out the documentary without the actual performances? Right?