Danny Boyle made the world root for a Mumbai street urchin in “Slumdog Millionaire,” made James Franco sweat as a climber trapped in a Utah canyon for “127 Hours.” Then for his next trick, he made a monster.
The Academy Award-winning director returns to the British stage after 15 years with “Frankenstein,” a new adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Gothic chiller about a scientist who builds himself a man, with tragic consequences for himself and his creation.
The show opens Tuesdayat London’s National Theatre and its run is already sold out. In part, that’s due to anticipation about of what the visually inventive Boyle — working with longtime design collaborator Mark Tildesley — will pull off.
It’s also a product of the high-profile casting of Benedict Cumberbatch — a rising star recently seen as the dashing Baker Street detective in the BBC’s TV series “Sherlock” — and Jonny Lee Miller, star of Boyle’s “Trainspotting,” and a regular on TV series “Eli Stone” and “Dexter.”
The two actors alternate the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his creation — a decision that plays up the idea that the scientist and the monster are mirror images, two halves of a flawed human whole.
Playwright Nick Dear said the casting of two notably handsome actors also helps ensure that “no one is expecting the eight-foot freak” with bolts in its head.
“We’re not just looking at scaring people with a monster,” said Dear, who has tried to remain more faithful to Shelley’s 1818 novel than most previous adaptations. The play avoids the M-word — the character is called The Creature, Shelley’s preferred term.
“What we’re really looking at is the relationship between the scientist and his experiment,” Dear said. “Dr. Frankenstein tries to create this thing in his own image, and he gets it wrong.”
Audiences elsewhere in Britain, Europe and the United States can see the play when it is broadcast in movie theaters as part of the National Theatre Live series. The theater plans to broadcast performances on March 17 and 24 — one with Cumberbatch as the Creature, the second with Miller in that role.
“Frankenstein” has been adapted countless times — from the black-and-white 1930s classic starring Boris Karloff to the schlocky Hammer Horror flicks of the 1950s and Kenneth Branagh’s lavish 1994 movie version, which starred Robert De Niro as the Creature.
Some of the images are so familiar they border on cliche: The mad scientist amid steaming potions and sparking machines in his lab; the brute, horrible creature rejected by his creator, wreaking havoc as he searches for love.
Dear — who first discussed adapting “Frankenstein” with Boyle when they worked together at the Royal Shakespeare Company 20 years ago — says he has tried to steer clear of cliche. And Boyle and his team have looked for a new visual language for the story.
This is no dark, Gothic world of shadows and mist. Tildesley, who worked on Boyle’s films “Millions,” '‘Sunshine” and “28 Days Later,” has lit the stage with 3,500 light bulbs and swathed the 1,100-seat auditorium in bandages.
Tildesley said he wants the audience to feel the heat and the light that bring the Creature to life.
“We really didn’t want to do that whole horror thing of black,” Tildesley said. “We have this big white stage, this intense light.
“It reminds me of the vampire movie ‘Let the Right One In.’ It’s terribly scary but it’s not dark. It’s snow and light.”
Dear, whose work includes the plays “Power” and “Zenobia” and the film version of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” hopes the new approach will help audiences see the story from the Creature’s often-overlooked point of view.
“It’s about saying, what would it feel like to be the experiment? How would it feel to suddenly find yourself created and abandoned and hated by humanity?
“It is really a debate about the responsibilities of the creator — often couched, in Shelley’s terms, as the responsibility of the father toward the child. I tend to see it much more in that way than as a kind of Gothic horror.”
It is also a cautionary tale about technology. Written after the upheaval of the American and French revolutions and on the cusp of a century of transforming technological change, the story carries a warning about what can happen when humanity plays God — Dear calls it “the creation myth for the science age.”
“You can’t disinvent something,” Dear said. “It reminds me a lot of Oppenheimer and the (atomic) bomb.
“Two hundred years on, we’ve still allowed all sorts of technological decisions to be made which in the long run probably aren’t going to do us any good.”