It is hard to know what to expect from a stage production of Frankenstein, especially when all of the films called Frankenstein have been off the mark on their adaptation of the novel by Mary Shelley. The production for the London Stage was written by Nick Dear (The Art of Success), published by Faber and Faber, directed by Danny Boyle (director of the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Olympics; Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), and starred Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary) as the Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as Dr. Victor Frankenstein. When this production was put up, on alternating nights Miller and Cumberbatch would switch parts, and although I would have loved to see both, I was only able to see the aforementioned one.
Shelley started writing the story when she was eighteen, and the novel was published when she was twenty. The first edition was published anonymously in London in 1818. Shelley’s name appears on the second edition, published in France in 1823 and was always titled Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, which influenced the creators and actors from this production. They also said that even though it takes place so long ago, much of the story still resonates with current events. It was written in an age before science fiction was a genre, when Gothic stories reigned, and the novel stands out above others riddled with fear of what lengths people will take for science, and what immoral acts can come from it. Can Man really play God? It was the first book to ask.
The production begins with a lit circle in the middle of the stage, something of a womb made of canvas and wood. Inside is the Creature being brought to life and he is birthed from this and onto the stage in view. For a while there is a bit of awkward flailing and noise-making as the Creature learns to crawl, stand, walk, run and emit some form of speech. When Victor enters and sees what he has done, he covers the Creature and abandons him, running for his life.
The stage design was Gothic and minimalist- very fitting for this novel. It was dark and sparse most of the time, with only flares of something more, like a patch of grass or a bonfire, or a small structure for a house, etc. There were some scenes that had much more, like the train and rail workers coming in, which was a spectacular sight to see, or where Victor lived and worked. The center part of the stage rotated and was utilized for space and to move scenery. There was also a curtain of lights above, a mass of light bulbs hanging from the rafters, and when they were lit it was a fantastic sight. All in all, the staging was very well thought out and employed very successfully.
The amazing thing about this production that has never happened in a straightforward adaptation of the novel (excluding I, Frankenstein, which could be considered an adaptation of the novel, but is also based on a graphic novel we discussed previously in a podcast) is that the voice of the Creature, his own thoughts and feelings, are so important and central to the production. This differs even from the novel, where although we heard the Creature speak, the story is told from Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s perspective. I have to applaud Nick Dear for taking this approach. This feature is what attracted him and was essential to this production, as Danny Boyle generally said, and unknowingly agreed with me about how previous adaptations of Frankenstein always took the Creature’s voice away, changing the point and the crux of the story.
A curious yet fabulous decision was that the casting for this play went for a colorblind array of cast members. We never see Victor’s mother, but his father (M. Frankenstein), brother (William) and fiancée/wife (Elizabeth) were black, and as most people can easily tell, Benedict Cumberbatch is a very pale shade of white. For the time it represented, it was unlikely in all accounts. As a viewer today, the fiancée doesn’t make much difference, but the blood relatives did pull me away from the story for a while, if only because I was trying to figure out if his father was really his stepfather and his little brother actually his half-brother. However, I am one to love it when directors and casting turn things on their head and surprise people.
The acting, I expected, was going to be the highlight of the play, and they did not disappoint. It is no wonder that Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller share both the Olivier Award and London Evening Standard Award for Best Actor for their respective performances. They brought the characters to life in a way that made you forget you were watching a play. When choosing which version to go see, I figured that Benedict could play either part very well, but I wanted to see what Jonny Lee Miller could do as the Creature.
For most of the first half of the play the Creature is left to roam through the dirty streets of London, hiding in the shadows and scrounging for food. Anytime he is seen, like when he saves a prostitute from an assault, she sees him and backs away wanting to leave him alone, which is the tamest way a person reacts to him.
As I have said in a previous podcast about the 1931 Frankenstein, the Creature Frankenstein creates is like a child. Everything around him is new and interesting and absolutely terrifying. That is Miller’s take on the Creature. When he comes to a patch of grass he plays on it, feels it and rolls in it. Rain is refreshing and amazing. The sun sets and the birds fly and he laughs and jumps around at all the new stimulation.
My only issue with his portrayal is that it walked a fine line between fabulous interpretation and offensive. This child-like Creature with put together parts and a newly awakened brain had some muscular and speech disabilities, which on one hand I can see how that fits, and on the other hand it took on the guise of someone mentally disabled with stutters, spitting and long pauses in between syllables of speech as he gathered his wits. When the Creature makes it out onto a farm and meets up with the blind man who takes him under his wing and teaches him literature and philosophy, his demeanor and mannerisms smooth out a bit, but still felt a little uncomfortable for me.
***Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence*** (skip next two paragraphs)
Still, the most uncomfortable moment was the culminating one, where Victor and Elizabeth have just wed in Geneva. Victor tells her to stay in her room while he and the guards go hunting the Creature. The Creature is actually hidden very well under the sheets of the bed and springs upon Elizabeth when Victor is away. At first, it seems that they are just going to talk. Elizabeth calms and tell him that they can be friends, which seems to be all that the Creature wants at this point, even though we know that he is desperate for someone like himself to be created.
The mood turns quickly as the Creature says that he feels bad that he has to do this and then proceeds to hold Elizabeth down on the bed and rapes her on stage. I do not remember that being part of the book and I think that a disclaimer was warranted. It made me very upset and sick and while I want to applaud the actors and director for making me feel so much, it was a bit too much for me and I’m sure for other audience members.
Besides that, the production was highly engaging. There are so many moments that just tug at you: You watch the creature learn and grow, and you pity him; you see him commit his first crime, and anger takes hold; he pleads with his creator to make a companion, and you sympathize with him; Victor takes into account all the ways this could go wrong and destroys the companion after showing the Creature, and you don’t know what to feel; the Creature murders all that is near and dear for Victor, and you feel disgusted. In the end it all culminates with the both Victor and his Creature in the North Pole, where we learn that they are nearly one and the same: both monsters, both human. All the Creature wants is to not be alone.
This play was dark and gritty, it easily held up a mirror to the audience asking who is the real monster? And it was not afraid to go darker and deeper; nothing was held back. Nick Dear really understood the original novel and made a play worthy of it. I applaud all those who worked on this successful production and now I hope that I can see how Benedict portrays the Creature. Can’t wait!