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.
Go here for more details: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/productions/16546-frankenstein