A couple of weeks ago, I went with a group of friends to see the (London) National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein. The play has attracted a lot of attention for several reasons: it’s a return to theatre direction for Danny Boyle after film success with Slumdog Millionaire; it stars two high-profile actors in Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch; and Cumberbatch and Miller alternate the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the creature he creates. The play uses a new adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 book, by Nick Dear and, subjectively, it looks like the NT has spent a great deal of money on it. (There’s even a soundtrack by Underworld, though that falls more into the category of atmospheric noise than anything overtly film-score-ish.) The play is currently sold out, but performances will be broadcast live to cinemas in the UK and overseas later in March.
A lot of what I wanted to say has been said by Liz Batty, who saw the same performance as me with Miller as the creature and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein. What I want to focus on is Dear’s adaptation, and particularly the changes it makes from the book. Reducing 300-odd pages to a 2-hour-no-interval play is obviously going to require some trimming, but what’s happened here is far more radical than I’d expected. Gone is the whole elaborate apparatus of letters and testimonies through which we find our way into the book. Gone too is any preamble to the creature’s creation. Instead, the very first scene depicts its agonisingly painful birth. That’s a cue to the bigger change here: this is a story overwhelmingly told from the creature’s point of view. The story of its development is telescoped into about 30 minutes of stage time, and much of its most famous dialogue is lost (including the famous line “Pardon this intrusion”.) But we are very forcefully driven to understand the creature’s rage, its drive, and its fury at its creator.
It’s a world where Frankenstein is always playing catch-up both physically and mentally. The creature bests him and surprises him at every occasion, like Hamlet toying with Polonius. One can read the book as the story of Frankenstein going in search of the absolute, firstly in his work and then in the Arctic wilderness. Here he’s a reduced figure, his sophistry and denial foregrounded, his pursuit of the creature doomed from the start.
So the debates that the book sets up are presented by Dear with very different biases. (That’s not to say that he pulls back from showing the horror of what the creature does. There’s no ducking out of that material.) Curiously, though, I don’t mind the way the adaptation puts a thumb on one pan of the balance. What it does is to reveal the inexhaustible richness of the original and the ideas it puts into play: innocence and knowledge, creator and created, civilisation and violence, science and religion, the domestic and the wild. (It’s no surprise that I’m couching all these as binaries since so many of them are embodied in the two leads.) The one layer that leapt out at me unexpectedly from the production was, of all things, class. It’s particularly good at presenting the ordered cloister of Frankenstein’s world and how much the creature’s intrusion is absolutely transgressive of its life.
The production itself, as Liz suggests, takes a lot of risks and they don’t all come off. The initial ten minutes, in which the creature lurches around the stage naked and almost wordless, had several audience members looking at their watches. The steampunk train that introduces the next scene is so obvious in symbolising the industrial revolution, and so overchoreographed, that it might have stumbled in from a bad musical. But the best decision in the production is a decision not to do something. The play relies even more than the book on the wish for paradise (a word that’s repeated many times). The creature imagines paradise repeatedly, but at no stage do we get shown any visual representation of it. It’s a production entirely rooted in this world. If, with Brian Aldiss, you believe that Frankenstein is where science fiction starts, you also have to believe that this is where sf’s dreams of transcendence start. Frankenstein asserts that these are just dreams. This is a play that shows us the rain, the snow, and the grass the creature delights in discovering; but the body you’re born into offers no escape.