I recently had the opportunity to see the The National Theatre of Great Britain‘s production of Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. I was fortunate that the play, an adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, was filmed and shown in movie theaters here in the US, otherwise I would have missed out on an amazing production. But when I saw that my local movie theatre had a showing scheduled just days before Halloween, I thought it would be a great way to spend an evening.
One of the things that caught my eye about this production was that the two principle actors, Cumberbatch and Miller, alternated which roles they played, and took turns being Victor Frankenstein and his creation. The version I saw had Jonny Lee Miller as the creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein but I would have loved to see both versions to compare and contrast them.
First, let me say that visually, the production was nothing short of stunning. The sets, lighting, and the way the stage transitioned from one scene to the next were simply amazing. I can’t imagine how it would have felt to be in the actual theatre and be immersed in that environment but even watching it on a movie screen was fascinating. There was a very cool Steampunk vibe at several points, which worked well with the themes of the story. There was also a musicality to the play that I really loved. While it stopped short of any actual musical numbers, there were several sequences where there was just enough of a suggestion of dance in the character’s movements to be very evocative.
As for the performances, in a short feature before the play started, the director and producer spoke about how they wanted to give the creature back his voice, something that was very present in the book but was taken away in the famous monster movies that followed. So whenever possible, they focused their attention on the experiences, thoughts, and emotions of the creature, rather than the creator. If at times, it seemed as if Cumberbatch had little to do other than lapse into the same sort of arrogant genius that fans of the BBC show, Sherlock, know so well, at least it is a niche that he fills beautifully. Miller on the other hand, gave an fascinating and extremely physical performance as Frankenstein’s monster. From his birth in the opening moments of the play and following struggles to master his newly animate body, Miller literally throws himself into the role with a commitment that was impressive to watch. The opening sequence of the monster learning to control his limbs and his discovery of the world around him ran a little long for my tastes, and made the beginning of the play drag ever so slightly but that seemed much more like a directing issue and took nothing away from Miller’s acting and the sheer physicality of the performance. Miller also played the creature with a speech impediment – almost as if his tongue was too large for his mouth, which made the monster’s obvious intelligence, reason, and highly literate and occasionally poetical speeches almost tortuous to deliver. This labored speech pattern that Miller uses to deliver highly articulate dialogue seemed to represent the struggle between how the monster was thought of by others and his true nature. At one point, the creature says to Frankenstein, “Maybe I’m a genius too” but the notion is so absurd that Frankenstein doesn’t even react to it, despite the monster’s obvious intelligence.
Which brings us to the writing. I should warn you that my comments from this point on contain spoilers so if you would like to avoid such things, you shouldn’t read any further. However, if you have seen the play or do not mind knowing what happens, read on.
On the whole, the script was incredibly well done. As I said before, there was a real focus on the creature and his voice, which I really appreciated. Having said that, it wasn’t a perfect adaptation and there were several points in the production that bothered me to varying degrees, As a minor quibble, I was disappointed that the famous quote: “Beware! I am fearless and therefore powerful” was not in the script. I was looking forward to seeing Miller’s delivery of the line and I think it would have been the perfect peak to a key scene but it was left out.
I was also surprised to see the plot point from the book where the creature frames one of the Frankenstein servants for William’s murder was left out of the play. As a book lover, I am used to seeing parts of books left out of adaptations, especially if sacrifices need to be made for timing purposes. However, Frankenstein’s moral dilemma on whether or not to let an innocent woman be put to death for a crime that his creation and by extension, he himself, is responsible for would have given Benedict Cumberbatch a moment to shine. But these are minor disappointments at best and don’t take away from an otherwise wonderful script.
What did bother me was two completely unnecessary and gratuitous additions to the story. In the book, after the creature reveals himself to De Lacey, the blind patriarch of a family that the creature has been secretly observing, learning from, and helping, De Lacey’s family come in, and thinking that the creature is a threat, drive him off. They then leave their cottage, fleeing the fright and horror of the creature’s appearance in their home and the monster lashes out at this rejection by burning their empty house. In the play, the creature and De Lacey have a much more protracted relationship with De Lacey teaching the creature to read and write (something he learns on his own in the book) and constantly asking the creature to stay to meet his family, which the creature repeatedly refuses to do, stating that they would hate him if they ever saw him. When De Lacey’s family does finally see the creature, they respond just the way the creature expected and drive him away, ignoring De Lacey’s protest. And then the monster burns down the house with them inside – including the man who has been his friend and teacher and a pregnant woman.
Another egregious addition to the story is at the end of the play, when the creature, enraged by Frankenstein’s destruction of the female creature he had promised to create, avenges himself by killing Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth. In the play, the creature reveals himself to Elizabeth and promises not to hurt her if she will listen to his grievances. Elizabeth responds with pity and kindness, offering to be the creature’s friend and to speak up for him. The monster then rapes and kills Elizabeth in front of Frankenstein. His cry of “Now, I am a man” having a double meaning of sexual conquest / loss of virginity but also a corruption, transforming form a creature who keeps his word into becoming like a man, the only creature that lies and betrays. Needless to say, none of this was in the book and I feel that it was simply put into the play for shock value.
Fortunately, the play did not end on this scene. If it had, the bad taste that it left in my mouth would have tainted what was otherwise an amazing production. Instead, the play ended with Frankenstein locked in an endless pursuit of his monster through the Arctic, finally providing a twisted sense of the companionship and devotion that the monster has been seeking since his birth as he tries to rid the world of the scientific horror that he brought into it. This was a much more satisfying end to the play and helped to erase – at least a little – the horror of the unnecessary rape in the previous scene and restore my overall enjoyment of the play.