National Theatre Live’s Frankenstein

We’ve already had at least one review on an adaptation of Frankenstein, and it’s truly a testament to Shelley’s work that there are so many different incarnations of her story to be discussed. Last night for All Hallow’s Eve, I had the pleasure of watching a production of National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein on the big screen at El Cerrito’s Rialto Cinemas. Directed by Danny Boyle and penned by English playwright Nick Dear, Frankenstein is an adaptation that truly deserves the title.

There are actually two versions of this play as it was performed in its run by National Theatre. In Version A, Johnny Lee Miller plays the titular character and Benedict Cumberbatch his creature. In Version B, the roles are swapped (this is the version I saw). In the pre-show making-of clips, Boyle tells the audience he wanted two actors that could pull off portraying both creator and creation. The rest of the cast is filled out by some truly talented but seldom-seen (at least in the states) actors. Victor’s father is played superbly George Harris (Kingsley Shacklebolt for all you Potter fans). De Lancy, the blind old man who befriends the creature, is given character and warmth by Karl Johnson. And Naomi Harris, who Boyle fans may recognize from her fierce and layered turn in 28 Days Later, manages to do a lot with the rather thinly written role of Elizabeth. But these supporting players really do act as support to the powerhouse duo of Miller and Cumberbatch, whose scenes together crackle with chemistry and complexity.

The brilliance of Dear’s adaptation lies in his ability to reach deeper into Shelley’s narrative and pull out a more complex understanding of the story she was telling. There are some notable changes made to Shelley’s story, but all of them seem to stem from choices about character rather than some attempt to make the story more theatrical or exciting. In thinking more about the play and its relationship to its source material, I have come up with the following explanation: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, is Victor’s version of events told from his point-of-view. Frankenstein, the play by Nick Dear, fills in the gaps of Victor’s story and shows us the real sequence of events as they really happened, without Victor to mitigate and omit the more unsavory details of his role in the events. This is, obviously, just a construction built in my own imagination, but I think it accurately describes the differences between the two stories and also the way that the play works as an adaptation.

One of the first real reversals the play makes is to present the creature’s story first, before we even really have a chance to meet Frankenstein. This is an interesting choice that I continue to speculate about, but I think it comes down to building sympathy for the creature and getting to see an unbiased view of the creature’s symbolic journey from newborn to “adulthood.” Miller’s portrayal of that journey is astounding. He brings true complexity to the role of the creature, and makes his longing for acceptance palpable and wrenching. The specter of a “bride” for Frankenstein (an Eve to his Adam, as it is put at one point) hangs heavily over the entirety of the play, much more so than in the original story.

The specter of the creature’s female counterpart provides the avenue for the second serious change to Shelley’s original piece. Dear’s play essentially enacts a “road not taken” in the original story—and his method for inserting this plot element has its roots in the play’s characterization of Victor Frankenstein. Dear’s Frankenstein has a hubris that extends beyond his initial desire to create life. In their first meeting after his initial abandonment, the creature tempts Frankenstein into creating his Eve. This sets up a truly brilliant scene between Frankenstein and his creature as Frankenstein attempts to create the female counterpart that is immediately denied to him in the book.  The ensuing conversation has the creature promise to look after and love his mate which leads Frankenstein to ask how, exactly it feels to love. The rest of the scene unfolds from this weighty question, and is I think the finest moment of acting for both men. While this scene is an addition to Shelley’s story, it does not take the narrative in an entire new direction, but instead intensifies and complicates Shelley’s plot and lends a fresh take on the ultimate fates of the characters.

There were things about the adaptation that I didn’t necessarily like or see as important additions to the story, but overall I felt it was one of the strongest stage adaptations I’ve ever seen. Certainly it is my favorite Frankenstein adaptation. Shelley’s vision shines through, but it is made more complex and rich by Dear’s wonderful script and the phenomenal performances by both Miller and Cumberbatch. The play is screening in a number of different theaters in the East Bay throughout the next few months, and I highly recommend it.

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4 Responses to National Theatre Live’s Frankenstein

  1. mercerism says:

    I’m really interested by the choice to start with the creature’s narrative. Frame narratives don’t really translate well to the stage, I guess, so this frees Dear up to shuffle the story around in other ways — these events are transpiring simultaneously, after all, so the plot remains unaffected. But how deeply the story must be impacted! I mean, leaving aside other changes that might come out of an adaptation and just imagining the text as Shelley wrote it, but simply rearranged so that the creature’s narrative came first, the effect must be considerable. For one thing, I would find it extremely difficult to sympathize with Victor, even to the very small extent that I do now.

    • I didn’t want this review to be 22 pages long, but if I had unlimited space I would have talked a lot more about how the play handles the character of Frankenstein, because it’s really interesting. He’s very, very different from how Shelley writes him, and the play (script writer, director, actors) doesn’t seem very interested in getting the audience to sympathize with him. It makes him an interesting and compelling character in other ways—more of a tragic character than in the book even. It changes a lot about how the narrative works.

      • mercerism says:

        I just keep thinking about how the vocabulary of the stage offers Dear/Boyle opportunities to articulate ideas in ways that are different from what Shelley could do in a novel. It’s a pretty standard reading of the text that the creature is a personification of, or metaphor for, the destructive consequences of Victor’s overly humanist, empiricist paradigm. In extreme cases, I’ve heard critics suggest that there may not be a literal monster, that it was all just Victor all along. Etc.

        So the choice to have the two actors play both roles, in addition to showcasing their acting skills and avoiding prima donna disputes about top billing, is itself an articulation of that blurring of agency and identity. This point is conveyed pretty explicitly by the poster shown at the end of the trailer with the two actors’ faces blurred between Victor and the creature. On one level, it is a depiction of both actors, conveying their portrayal of two roles, but on another level, if we take the image as a depiction of the characters, it depicts them as quite literally blurring into one another.

  2. ebbwilliams says:

    Thank you for doing a review on this play. I heard the “Fresh Air” interview with Cumberbatch a few weeks/months ago and I remember being compelled to carve out some time to watch this. Your review definitely put it nearer to the top of my must watch list. All the Cumberbitches out there should be happy, his body of work is so rapidly expanding, I don’t think the man sleeps. It seems only a minute ago he was the awkward but brilliant young incarnation of Sherlock Holmes for BBC.

    In regards to the plot points that you address that differed so widely from the book, it seems like the playwright’s license sought to emphasize the points in the book that were so troubling for us as a class. Doing away with the unreliability of the frame narrative and letting Frankenstein’s monster tell his own story, and tell it first, serves to lessen the sympathy for Victor Frankenstein and also give some agency to the monster. I wonder if that takes away at all from the reader/viewer’s compassion for the monster, who in the novel isn’t even able to tell the story of his existence without the mediation of his creator?

    The other difference that you addressed that we also seemed to discuss quite a bit in class was the biological imperative to procreate and Frankenstein’s monster’s desire for companionship. I’m looking forward to watching the play myself and seeing which aspect of “the bride of Frankenstein” the playwright sought to develop. What becomes more important to the monster in the end, creating more life, or having someone to spend his with?

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