In this compelling stage version of Frankenstein, urgency of revenge pushes forward, murder upon murder. Creature and Doctor merge in immorality. Both are playing God in their command of life and death. Sharing roles is the meaning of this theatrical experience. This is their message and their show.
Frankenstein by Nick Dear. Based on a novel by Mary Shelley. Directed by Danny Boyle. Produced by the National Theatre for NT Live. There are NT Live screenings of Frankenstein throughout New England in June and July. Check the NT Live site for venues and showing times. There is a Coolidge Corner Theater showing on June 25 at 7 p.m.
By Joann Green Breuer
Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley (1797–1851) emerged from adolescence with a thorough, eighteenth-century education, a robust social philosophy, madly in love with the romantic poet of the era, and a really terrific yarn. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the vivid, feminist tract, Vindication of the Rights of Women, died a few days after her daughter’s birth. Her step mother, Mary Jane Clairmont, was, at best, neglectful of young Mary, tending to her own children, particularly William, the boy she bore with William Godwin, Mary’s puritanical father. The elder Godwin read prodigiously, wrote perceptively about himself, and, aware of his daughter’s intellect and curiosity if not her emotional cravings, kept her in great books and good health.
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, and most likely her daily self, are thus come to be.
The novel unravels through letters and layers of narrators. We readers are sufficiently distanced from the seemingly preposterous, heretical notion that life is capable of being resurrected from the human dead, HELA cells notwithstanding. If it is only hearsay, well, we can listen with a skeptic’s ear until the magnetic horrors of the tale chill our disbelief. Dramatist Nick Dear and director Danny Boyle will have none of that distance in their theatrical adaption. This is theater. Theater demands immediacy.
Frankenstein on stage accosts us immediately with an overhead, over-loud church bell. The first moment of an independent life oozes from the slit of a semi-transparent, skin-tinted, vulva-like sphere. This naked, disorganized, confused figure, we know (because we all know, or think we know, the story) is the supreme and base accomplishment of the secret-of-life-obsessed scientist Doctor Victor Frankenstein.
The roles of Doctor Victor Frankenstein and the Creature are alternately played—a misnomer, wrought is more like it—by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. I saw the former as the Creature live on the Olivier stage and at the Coolidge Corner Theater in an HD recording of a different performance.
At the National, Cumberbatch, naked, writhes across the space like a snake sprouting limbs. He does not know if he is supposed to balance on his elbows, his toes, his heels, or his hands. He is hilarious and pathetic and tortured in his vulnerability. His lips, his tongue, strain to figure out exactly what and why they are. The Creature learns quickly. A few sketchy scenes, crowds hectoring, kindly old, blind man tutoring, and the Creature learns to speak to read, to dress, to reason. He learns what it means to be abandoned. He learns the pain of loneliness and the pull of revenge. He learns he has no name. He learns to be humanesque, which for him is to desire, love, and to lie. Frankenstein’s blank slate creation is stained by society’s rejection, irredeemable.
Yet whatever he learns, however human he becomes, the miracle of Cumberbatch’s representation is that the Creature’s serpentine soul and dessicated tendons’ origin never completely disappear. When the Creature hisses his pride at his “assimilation,” we become startled believers in fictive science, even, for that dark moment, in the Satan he vindicates and mirrors.
Miller is shorter, darker than Cumberbatch. Once seeing Cumberbatch as the Creature, it is difficult to imagine another actor as the persona. And yet, and yet. As ambition’s passion overwhelms Miller’s Doctor, he trembles, his physical balance almost as insecure as his mind’s. His persistent awkward gesticulations have an eerie familiarity. The essential Creature is growing within him. The Creature possesses Frankenstein’s notebook. For them both, the arcane equations hold the lesson they exalt and regret, an impossible equilibrium, irreconcilable.
The urgency of revenge pushes forward, murder upon murder. Creature and Doctor merge in immorality. Both are playing God in their command of life and death. Sharing roles is the meaning of this theatrical experience. This is their message and their show.
The configurations of the Creature’s body, fingers, ankles, chin, are continually intriguing and character specific. The simple staging does not compete with such remarkable, muscular manipulations. Boyle’s one stunning gasp-inducer is the Creature’s leap into Elizabeth’s bridal chamber though her bed’s satin duvet. The fling may have been a nod to Puck’s entrance through a mattress in Robert LePage’s extraordinary Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it provides an equally shiver-inducing shock.
Miller and Cumberbatch are, thankfully infrequently, accompanied on stage by a contingent of considerably lesser talents. Only Naomie Harris as Elizabeth, Victor’s doomed fiancée, blends humor and horror with grace. Her transition from trust to terror is captivating. Other characters, as written and as portrayed, are one dimensional, serving only the plot, which is not where the deeper story lives.
Viewing the play in HD has its advantages. The tantalizing possibility of danger in live performance remains, and it’s a heck of a lot less expensive. Close ups are revealing, (the Creature and the female ‘bride’ Victor almost electrifies to life are censored via loin cloths for the HD audience), no tall heads in the row in front of you, and scenes are viewed from different angles. However, the camera work manhandles the audience. We lose active involvement when we cannot choose what to watch. Audiences are supposed to be curious.
The camera often focuses on the conglomeration of light bulbs hung from the flies. This distraction covers some minimal, merely practical, scene changes but is meaningless nonetheless. The loss in scale is significant. Creature and creator are human size when viewed live. Their humanity, despite or because of their inhumanity, is what matters and what has made the story so viscerally potent centuries since its conception. The vast space of the Olivier stage dwarfs Creature and creator, and it can effect nobility of stature. On screen the pair are never life size. Their relation to the space in which they make their way is random, and thus rendered insignificant. That loss in particular matters, especially when the drama lurches to its conclusion midst mountainous, icy desolation.
Frankenstein the novel is about many things your high school teacher taught: for the secular, the lure and danger of science; for the non-secular, the assumption of God’s work; and so on, we behave as we are treated, looks judge the man, and fiction is autobiographically shaped (Mary’s young, half-brother William died, Frankenstein’s young brother is murdered).
Frankenstein the play is, above all, about pursuit. Whether that pursuit is of partner or of self is immaterial. Pursuit is proof and necessity of life. Frankenstein can aim a pistol at his creation’s eyes, the Creature can mold his knuckles to his creator’s throat, but neither can destroy the other. The pursuit in this adaptation extends beyond the curtain, eternally. Shelley lets the Doctor die. Not so Nick Dear.
Shelley builds mountains of beauty and transforms them to ice with literary references through which these two miserable geniuses dance their logical twists and final philosophical trudge.
The stage no longer does realism well. Luckily, we don’t need it. Dear is chary with language as Boyle is selective with special effects. In an early scene, there was real fire, and realistic reaction to it, and false fire, and inadequate attempts at audience distraction from the fakery. At the ultimate confrontation, fake snow would be far beneath Boyle’s dignified imagination. Once, quoting Milton was fun for the Creature, proof of his prodigious mind. Now the fun is faded. There is no climactic moment in these vistas. The trembling gape of the Creature’s scarred chin, his gloriously inarticulate cry, the doctor’s breathy, quaking struggle with his furred glove, are evidence enough of desperate motive in desolate winter.
Boyle closes Dear’s text with Victor dragging his sledge through the frozen north. The Creature, hardy lover of snow and weathers, leads the doctor on and is led on by him. Pursuer and pursued are two halves of one being, interchangeable, indistinguishable images, as immeasurable as the gray mist.