Experiencing Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein is like viewing a perfect negative imagine of the 1818 novel. The playwright shifts point of view and reworks the plot’s chronological structure, yet his script remains authentic to Shelley’s vision, highlighting the psychological tortures inflicted and endured by the two main characters while recreating the images most pertinent to novel’s horror and science fiction roots.
This was my second viewing of Frankenstein via National Theater Live, a program in which stage plays produced by London’s National Theater are filmed and showcased on movie screens around the world. This production from 2011 stars incomparable actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller with direction from Oscar-winner Danny Boyle. In short, it is too breathtaking to be archived only in the memories of those fortunate enough to see it live in London. If you have never experienced a National Theater Live production, visit their website to see when and where a production might be showcased near you.*
Shelley’s novel begins with the first-person voice of Dr. Victor Frankenstein explaining his childhood and scientific studies. The play begins in a different place—with a blinding flash of light followed by the low, accelerating thump of a heartbeat. The monster (Cumberbatch) tears his way out of a giant membrane and collapses to the floor. He is a fully grown man with a developed brain, but he lacks any experience of vision or motor skills or pain. He flaps on the floor, covers his eyes from the continuous flashes of lightning. He tries to stand and falls. When he encounters his first human, he shrieks, so thoroughly terrifying his creator that Dr. Frankenstein (Miller) hurls a cloak at the abomination and runs.
This captivating openly scene sets the tone of the narrative in which Dr. Frankenstein and his monster become so intertwined that each’s existence becomes dependent on the other’s actions. Dear’s script provides new insights into the themes most central to the original text:
The privilege of the creator. Dr. Frankenstein travels into the mountains and yells for his creation to show himself shortly after the unexplained murder of his young brother William. On meeting, Frankenstein believed that his creation would submit to death by stabbing based solely on the proclamation of he who had created. Cumberbatch presents the emotional spectrum of the monster as he tries to understand why he was created just to suffer from constant rejection while possessing the intelligence to understand loneliness. In a later scene, Frankenstein’s own father (George Harris), who knows nothing of the monster, proclaims his agony for having created a son that seems to be connected to pain and death at every turn. Ultimately, Frankenstein’s inability to foresee the consequences of creating a being physically superior to himself leads to the scientist’s destruction.
Ego versus intellect versus emotion. Dr. Frankenstein’s love for Elizabeth (Naomie Harris) is always secondary to his love of his own intellect. With each opportunity to marry, Frankenstein runs to the far reaches of Europe to further his studies. Miller’s performance explores the full impact of Frankenstein’s ego. The scientist is blessed with the superior intellect needed to create life through science, yet he lacks the introspection to accept the beauty of creating life with Elizabeth. For the monster’s part, emotion plays a much more significant role on his actions as he yearns for what Frankenstein already has—a devoted mate. When the doctor destroys this female version at the last minute, he unleashes the monster’s complete fury. In an inspired clothing change for the last scene, the monster changes from ill-fitting rags to a formal suit, a subtle indication that the evolution of an intellectual being will coincide with some degree of a growing ego.
The capacity of evil. The monster found companionship and education in the company of an impoverished blind man. After months, the old man holds tight to the monster as his son and daughter-in-law return to the house, assuring the monster that his relatives will accept his friend. “What have I done!” cries the old man after his son attacks the repulsive being, an act that prompts the monster to his first act of revenge—burning the family’s house with the three residents trapped inside. Later, after quoting Paradise Lost to his creator, the monster reveals that he connected most with Satan for having been expelled from Heaven. While Dear’s script focuses heavily on the monster as a sympathetic character, the monster’s evil ultimately leads him to feed and tend to a nearly dead Dr. Frankenstein because exacting pain on his creator (arguably even enslaving him) has become the monster’s only purpose in life.
All told, National Theater Live’s production of Frankenstein is a gift to fans of theater, fans of the novel, fans of Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting, and fans of any story propelled by two foils engaged in a take-no-prisoners psychological battle. Nick Dear’s script provides an inspired tribute to the source material—a chilling reminder that a “monster” is not created merely from raw materials but also from deprivation of the human need for companionship and acceptance.
* I would be remiss to not mention another favorite National Theater Live production— The Audience starring Helen Mirren.