Frankenstein: a stage adaptation by Nick Dear of Mary Shelley’s novel

Frankenstein‘Frankenstein’:Part of the National Theatre Live programme

14th June, 2012


Did I request thee, Maker from my clay

To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?”         John Milton, Paradise Lost

I cannot believe that I was narrow minded enough to dismiss the National Theatre’s forthcoming production of Frankenstein when the Pre-booking season landed in my email -inbox.  Visions were conjured of the “Hammer Horror” Boris Karloff with a bolt through his neck leaping from the bowels of the stage. Perhaps I had doubts, too, of the Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle’s directorial debut here. Luckily, there was an opportunity to see the production, albeit, through NT Live. Phew!

I loved teaching the novel to 15 year old boys who were particularly engaged with ideas about Nature and human fallibility.  Interestingly, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is subtitled “or, the modern Prometheus”.  The boys loved the Greek legend  which tells of Prometheus, the Titan who created the human race against the wishes of the gods – his experiment. Zeus punished him by binding him to a rock in the Caucasus and sending an eagle to eat his liver (which grew back every day so the punishment would be everlasting). The subtitle of Shelley’s novel clearly casts Victor Frankenstein in the role of Prometheus. Like the Titan, Frankenstein creates a man and gives him life, and, also like Prometheus, he ultimately endures great torment.

Boyle’s focus is the torment.  The opening fifteen minutes delivers a fine piece of physical theatre with the galvanised genesis of the Creature (Cumberbatch) in a startling nude tour de force. A haunting overlay of the Underworld‘s soundtrack reinforces that this ‘birth’ of an adult is not natural; he struggles with horrible spasms and tremors.  Cumberbatch inhabits his monster, contorting his body in painful yet visceral contortions; I could not help but wonder whether his body could sustain weekly performances.

The Creature’s fast-burgeoning intelligence is, however, too quick to be realistic, yet necessary to make progress through the story within the compressed time line of the production.  With the aid of Nick Dear’s lean and, at times,flawed script, Boyle partly manages by treating the adaptation like a film.  Alas,  the narrative does not flow seamlessly.  A few moments jar – Where are the blind man’s daughter and her husband during the year it takes the creature to learn to speak? Having abducted the Doctor’s younger brother, the “creature” then kills the child for no apparent reason.  The inclusion of a rape in Elizabeth’s death scene seems totally unnecessary, only adding shock value.

In contrast, Jonny Lee Miller’s Frankenstein does deliver the torment of inner conflict; his scientific hubris whilst fearing the consequences of his action.

Gothic novelists discovered the charm of horror and the power of the supernatural. As a consequence the main purpose of Gothic novels was to terrify the readers rather than to amuse them. So, on this level, Danny Boyle’s innovative production ticks the boxes.

At the end, attentive to whispers of those who wished to see Cumberbatch as Frankenstein, I did wonder whether the National Theatre had devised the role swapping as a cynical marketing ploy to get the audience to come back twice. Though as Boyle wished, ‘In terms of the performance, Frankenstein and the Creature literally create each other: every other night they re-inhabit each other.’

 “Men are born free but exist everywhere in chains”