Frankenstein is one of those rare stories that seems to grow more meaningful with every passing year. Written by the eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, in 1816-17, it has the distinction of being both a literary classic and the ancestor of the two popular genres we know as horror and science fiction. It has always been recognised as a morality tale about a man who challenges the Gods at their own game and suffers the consequences. Nowadays it also conjures up thoughts of organ transplants, cloning, and genetic mutation.
Danny Boyle, known for films such as Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, claims to have found a new use for Frankenstein, as an inspiration for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, for which he has been appointed Artistic Director.
Those who find it hard to make the connection, may wish to sample the production of Frankenstein, Boyle undertook last year for the National Theatre in London. The action takes place under a vast bank of lights that flare up like fireworks. The stage, as Boyle describes it, is “a cauldron”. Expect the same stagecraft, but not the body parts.
Frankenstein was broadcast under the highly successful National Theatre Live program, which has brought these works to a worldwide audience. The play returns for an encore season this weekend and next, in selected cinemas across Australia. (For local screening times & venues, go to:http://www.ntlive.info/)
The initial season was a sell-out, and rightly so. It is a masterly piece of theatre in which writer, Nick Dear, has teased out every nuance of Mary Shelley’s saga.
One of the novelties of the play was that from one night to the next the two lead actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternated in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the monster. Dramatically, this brought out the idea that the creature is actually Frankenstein’s alter-ego – the dark side of his personality given concrete form. His rejection of his new-born creation thereby becomes a repudiation of his own sensual nature. His fiancée, Elizabeth, complains that he never touches her, or even speaks to her.
The monster is as hungry for love as a child, but is beaten, spurned and rejected by all of humanity. With each rejection his hatred and his need for murderous retribution increases, although these violent impulses are balanced by a reasoning mind that struggles to understand both himself and his tormentors.
The play begins with the monster being born from a large womb-like sack. He writhes around on the stage struggling to gain control of his twitching limbs, painfully rising to his feet and falling. In the production I saw, Benedict Cumberbatch attacked this scene with a ferocious intensity.
This is very different to the popular image of Frankenstein’s monster, which remains the square-headed giant played by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s film of 1931. In this version, the monster groans and murmurs his way through every encounter, struggling to give words to his thoughts. In Boyle’s version the creature has a voice. He can argue and reason with his maker, quote from Paradise Lost, and plead his case for the creation of a mate. Cumberbatch’s articulate monster is much more of a human being than Karloff’s lumbering brute, although one should not underestimate the artistry with which the earlier actor elicited our sympathies.
Watching this production of Frankenstein is not like watching a motion picture. Our perceptions are limited to the dimensions of the stage with none of the devices that make cinema such an all-encompassing art. What we get instead is the intimacy of the night at the theatre, where we feel closer to the monster than we’ve ever been before.
Frankenstein, UK, rated MA 15 +, 120 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 09, 2012