For all the power of cinema or a great novel, there is nothing to compare with the experience of live theatre to capture and carry an audience, to be there in the room with the performers, to see every moment as it is created. But is it a hubristic expectation to project that performance onto a distant cinema screen and hope that it retains its power?
Perhaps so, but the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle from a script by Nick Dear, as ambitious and bold as the work of the title character, is no ordinary play, as a global audience discovered on Thursday March 17th, as the National Theatre Live programme did just that.
Almost two hundred years after it was written, Mary Shelley’s creation has become a cultural synonym, understood by the masses, of whom few have read the novel, to reflect whatever outrages them in scientific research, be it genetically modified food, embryonic stem cell therapy or xenotransplantation. Yet this is the same research that has extended lifespans, transformed the lives of organ transplant recipients, and reduced formerly mortal ailments into manageable conditions.
So after all this time, what remains to be said about a story that most have little understanding of? The key feature of this adaptation is that it gives a voice to the Creation, telling the story from his point of view from his first moments of consciousness, with no preamble of his construction. He awakens, pushing his way out from the membrane of his birthing chamber to collapse, twitching, upon the red drenched stage floor, struggling to rise, to coordinate his muscles to locomotion. Dragging himself forward on bare knuckles before staggering to shaky feet, Victor Frankenstein returns to behold his animated creature, and appalled, demands that it obey him before fleeing the stage, flashes of lightning pursuing him.
Abandoned and terrified, the Creation is unable to fend for itself, but discovers the wonders of a new world, sunrise, flying birds, grass, rain, snow, the heat of a cooking pot, the taste of rabbit stew, contrasted with the violence from all he encounters who see no further than the stitched together appearance of the man.
It is music that brings him to the forest home of De Lacey, old and blind, who presumes him to be a survivor of the war because of his deformity, and sets about teaching him to talk, to write, and by day they discuss philosophy while by night the Creation works the fields, evolving every day. “With all I learn I discover how much I do not know. Ideas batter me like hailstones.”
Aware of the Creation’s fear of others, De Lacey confirms “Peasants are ignorant people. They do not read like you and I,” and inevitably, when he tries to introduce the Creation to his family, they attack him, and in his anger he burns the farmhouse down. Tracking his maker, the Creation finds Victor has no interest in his needs, only what he represents. “I failed to make it handsome, but I gave it strength and grace. What an achievement!” When challenged, Victor is dismissive – “I am your master, you should show respect,” but the Creation counters “A master has duties; you left me to die.”
Forcing Victor to cooperate by threatening his family, a deal is struck between the two – the Creation will spare them in return for a bride, and Victor retreats to a remote Scottish island to conduct experiments, engaging two locals to obtain the necessary materials, and under lightning and rain the deed is done – graverobbing. Unseen, the Creation observes the process, and considers his own origin – “Stolen from wet soil, made from meat for the dogs. And will I want her, stinking of death?” But when he sees her, he loves her, and promises he will keep his side of the bargain to take his bride and withdraw out of sight.
Unlike the Creation, desperate for love, Victor is unable to connect to anyone. When the bride is about to be animated, and his Creation speaks of his need for her, he destroys her in a fit of pique rather than allow his first Creation the joy of what he cannot feel. Victor’s fiancé Elizabeth is aware of his distance, of his persistent avoidance of marriage, his refusal to discuss his work until it is too late, and the Creation has besieged them. “You worship the gods of electricity and gas. If you wanted a child why not give me one?” As played by Jonny Lee Miller in this performance, Victor is demanding, cold, arrogant and driven, with no thought to those around him.
In contrast, Benedict Cumberbatch, for all his tortured appearance and struggling physicality, every word and gesture a painful effort, is thoughtful, caring and aware of his morality. Beneath the disfiguring scars, the Creation is beautiful. While his revenge on those who betray him is terrible, he gives them every chance to repent before he exacts it. It is Benedict’s performance that shapes the play, rendering the barrier of the screen irrelevant to the audience, giving life to the Creation regardless of whether the witnesses are in the theatre seats or cinema seats.
In contrast to most adaptations, this version incorporates the framing story of the novel, concluding with the pursuit across the ice caps, Victor and his quarry retreating across a wasteland, still bound to each other, neither willing to give in. “Solitary moon drives me on, we can only go forward, we can never go back,” the Creation observes, more aware of its situation and needs than the man who made it. “All I wanted was your love. I would have loved you with all my heart, my poor creator,” he tells Victor as he collapses in his arms.
Using the full range of modern stage techniques, with ascending sets built upon a revolving carousel stage and lit by a vast array of suspended bulbs that flickers and flashes in electric luminosity, Danny Boyle and his team have created a work that is a testament to the continuing importance of the work of Mary Shelley who first caught the spark two centuries ago and to all who harbour the flames that shape the world today, to remind us that while fire is a vital tool, it must be carefully used lest it turn on us.