Frankenstein, or rather, Frankenstein’s monster has become a cultural icon. We see him represented in old movies, comedy series such as “The Munsters” (Herman) or “The Addams Family” (Lurch) and in so many different Halloween ads.
Beyond the horror movie archetype is a serious philosophical question about man, nature and God. The National Theatre production, now being screened at movie theaters across the nation in encore performances re-imagines “Frankenstein” by returning to the source material, providing a powerful, emotional journey as seen through the eyes of the creature, created by man only to become an outcast.
The creature of Frankenstein was created by Mary Shelley when she was only 18. The book was published in 1818 when she was 21 and her actual novel, “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus,” brings up issues of science and nature, pride and honor, actions and responsibility and prejudice and tolerance.
Shelley was reacting to the industrialization of her world, but today, the issues she wrote about still concern us in a time when we can alter DNA, clone animals and begin pregnancy in a laboratory as well as transplant an entire face. All of which would have been more science fiction than science fact during the Victorian era.
Shelley’s mother was feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who argued that women appeared to be intellectually inferior to men because they lacked the same education in her 1792 “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Mary Shelley was first the mistress of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and then, after the suicide of his first wife, his second wife.
Frankenstein, as a monster, has fallen into schlock, but the story doesn’t begin with a mad scientist. The creature isn’t voiceless, but an intelligent sentient being that is about eight feet tall. Today he’d be a star basketball player, but then he was nothing less than a monster.
The novel begins with a captain of a ship exploring the North Pole when they see a gigantic human form and later discover the half-starved, nearly dead Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein is revived by the captain and his crew, and he begins to tell his story. Born to a wealthy family, he was in love with an orphan that his parents adopted when he was 4, Elizabeth. He has two younger brothers.
Impatient and even bored with school, he begins secret research and finally, he is able to reanimate what had been dead, but the creature is ugly.
The National Theatre had a live international broadcast on 17 March 2012 and various movie theaters are offering encore screenings. The screenings include a short interview with the playwright Nick Dear, the director Danny Boyle and the two leads who switched parts–Frankenstein and his creature–throughout the run, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. Both Miller and Cumberbatch won a joint Olivier Award for Best Actor, making this production well-worth seeing.
Miller was in the 1996 movie “Trainspotting,” but was the lead in the American TV series “Eli Stone” which lasted two seasons. The series followed a lawyer who has strange visions might include full musical numbers and opened with an appearance by the singer George Michael. More recently Miller was in Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” as Roger Collins. Before Brangelina, Miller was married to Angelina Jolie (1996-1999) whom he co-starred with in “Hackers.”
Cumberbatch portrayed Stephen Hawking in the BBC 2004 “Hawking” and was in the 2007 “Atonement,” the 2011 “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “War Horse.” He’s the title character in the BBC series about a modern day Sherlock Holmes, “Sherlock.” (Coincidentally, Miller will portray Sherlock Holmes in a CBS TV drama series “Elementary” in which Lucy Liu will play Watson.)
Nick Dear’s script for the National Theatre in London’s stage version follows the novel more closely than the horror movies. Dear felt the play was about “what man is capable of and the repercussions.” For Dear, the novel is “a creation myth for the science age” because “it doesn’t involve a deity.”
The introduction to the play intersperses clips from the 1931 Universal movie directed by James Whale which featured Boris Karloff as the creature, but since we don’t use bolts in surgery and flat tops are out of fashion, the creature in the play is very different.
Under hundreds of hanging light bulbs of different shapes and sizes far above the large stage, there is a man’s figure, seen only in silhouette at first. The man is in a circular tent-like structure in the middle of the stage. There’s no tubes of bubbling liquids or smoke rising. Electrical currents don’t fly like lightening bolts across the stage. It resembles a stylized Southwestern Native American site. And the red lights and throbbing heart-beat makes the set and tent seem like a New Age representation of the womb.
When the humanoid form escapes this pod, we see that he’s deeply scarred with clumsy, uneven sutures running across his bald head, his torso and limbs. Nearly naked save for an underwear formed by bandages, he trembles and flops about. Brain sends signals to limbs that have been stilled by death, and the body must re-learn how to move with pieces cobbled together and now one unit. Think of a person who has been seriously injured and now is forced into rehab without a crutch, cane or helping hand.
In the screened version, we get close-ups that weren’t available to the audience in the cheap seats, but we also get overhead views. The tension of the creature’s struggle to move having been born alone and unguided by physical warmth of another human’s touch becomes magnified by the editing.
When Victor Frankenstein (Cumberbatch) first appears, he is frightened. Dressed in dark trousers, with a white shirt and a dark apron, he doesn’t approach his creature. “Keep back,” he demands. “Do as I say.” He doesn’t see a child or even an equal and that feeling persists. Flinging a red blanket at the nearly naked creature, Frankenstein flees.
The Industrial Age is suggested by an abstract representation of a train that rolls on to the stage with sparks spewing and darkly clothed people going through the repetitive motions of work. These people have no gentle word for the monster even those his initial actions are of childish wonder at the sun and the grass or the even protective of the weak. Everywhere, he is met with brutality.
The creature does find a friend, a blind man who once was a professor at a university until it was ransacked. Under reduced conditions, he lives with his daughter and son-in-law. The creature does them small favors, but is afraid to appear before the young couple. Through the blind man he learns about the world, how to read, how to write and the inconsistencies of human society.
When things go badly, he, like the men in the great stories he’s read, seeks revenge and, alone again, he searches for his creator in Switzerland. In order to find him, the creature choses to kill a young boy, Victor’s younger brother. Frankenstein goes into the mountains to seek his monster and they meet and misunderstand each other.
The creature tells Frankenstein how he was “hounded like a rat.” Yet he finds no trace of paternal warmth from his creator.
While Frankenstein, demands “I am your master, show respect,” the creature reminds him that “A master has duties.” And the creature asks that if he is Adam then he needs his own Eve. With a woman, one of his own kind, he could leave Europe and hide in the jungles of Argentina, leaving Frankenstein alone.
The creature wants love, but even when Frankenstein is willing to work toward giving the creature just that in a dark island cottage in Scotland, he can’t make the creature understand that love isn’t so easily created or predicted.
Breaking his promise, Frankenstein is determined to wed his fiancee Elizabeth in Geneva, but he knows he’s pursued by his creature. Explaining his problem to a disbelieving Elizabeth just after their wedding, he exclaims, “I’m talking about science,” Elizabeth corrects him, saying “You’re talking about pride.”
Things will not end well for Elizabeth, Victor Frankenstein or his creature. A child is told he was just “an equation” or “a puzzle to be solved” and never that he is loved. One puzzle solved, but the product of that equation is never put put into another equation of what next, what now and what have I done.
Director Danny Boyle has carefully modulated the development and transformation of the creature from an innocent to a thinking being. At first his movements and speech make the tenderhearted wish to spring up and help him move or aid him by finishing his sentences or wiping up his drool. From the lisping awkwardly moving brute in rags, he becomes a man molded from his environment.
Over two hundred years after Mary Shelley asked questions about science and scientists, we can see the wonders and the catastrophic dangers caused by science and industrialization even as we solve new puzzles and new equations. Centuries after the introduction of social Darwinism, we still are troubled by racial prejudice and bullying.
Nick Dear re-introduces us to Shelley’s inquisition into the wisdom and folly of men and science. Even without the considerations of cloning and genetic alterations, this production forces us to witness an innocent creature, happy and eagerly expecting kindness transformed into a bitter brute who behind his taunting words is still just a boy seeking the love and approval of his true father.
Shelley’s message has been diluted over time, although the message of tolerance can still be found in the Addams Family and the Munsters. What was once out of place is now fashionable with the proliferation of skulls in fashion design and the rise of steampunk. Perhaps even in Lady Gaga’s following of little monsters we can see that being a monster is trendy.
While we’ve come so far, we also may have come too far. The sensitive portrayals by both Cumberbatch and Miller allow us to see the monsters within every man and brings us back to Shelley’s original questions that seem much more urgent today. For mature audiences (PG-13).
For more information on encore performances, visit the National Theatre Live website.
For information on similar events, visit Fathom Events.