I have reviewed the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein in the latest issue of Nature. Worth seeing (though if you haven’t got a ticket already, you don’t stand much chance), but I was slightly disappointed in the end, having seen some glowing reviews. There’s another perspective here.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been endlessly adapted and reinterpreted since it was first published, anonymously, in 1818. Aside from the iconic screen version by James Whale in 1931, there have been sequels, parodies (Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and postmodern interpolations (Brain Aldiss’s Frankenstein Unbound). Victor Frankenstein has become the archetypal mad scientist, unleashing powers he cannot control – in one recent remake, he became a female biologist experimenting on organ regeneration with stems cells. The ‘Franken’ label is attached to every new technology that appears to intervene in life, from genetic modification of crops to Craig Venter’s ‘synthetic’ microbe.
This reinvention is no recent phenomenon. Shelley’s book was little known until the first stage adaptations began in the 1820s, in which Frankenstein’s creature was already transformed into a mute, shambling brute based on the stock theatrical character of the Wild Man. This personification continued in the first film adaptation in 1910, simply called Frankenstein.
Some might lament how the original novel has been distorted and vulgarized. But literary critic Chris Baldick has a wiser perspective:
The truth of a myth… is not to be established by authorizing its earliest versions, but by considering all its versions… That series of adaptations allusions, accretions, analogues, parodies and plain misreadings which follows up on Mary Shelley’s novel is not just a supplementary component of the myth; it is the myth.
After all, there isn’t even a definitive version of Shelley’s story. She made small but significant changes in the third edition (1831), in particular emphasizing the Faustian themes of presumption and retribution on which the early stage versions insisted.
Besides, critics still dispute what Shelley’s message was meant to be – probably she was not fully conscious of all the themes herself. Far from offering a simplistic critique of scientific hubris, the story might instead echo Shelley’s troubled family life. Her mother, the feminist and political radical Mary Wollstonecraft, died from complications after Mary’s birth, and her father William Godwin all but disowned her after she eloped to Europe with Percy Shelley in 1814. She lost her first child, named William, that year, subsequently describing a dream in which the boy was reanimated. There is ample reason to believe Percy Shelley’s statement of the central moral of Frankenstein: ‘Treat a person ill, and he becomes wicked’.
If so, Nick Dear’s adaptation of the story for the National Theatre in London, directed by Danny Boyle of Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire fame, has returned to the essence of the tale. For it focuses on the plight of the creature, whose lone and awkward ‘birth’ begins the play. We see how this mumbling wretch, spurned as a hideous thing by Victor, is reviled by society until finding refuge with the blind peasant De Lacey. The kindly old man teaches the creature how to speak and read using Milton’s Paradise Lost, the story of Satan’s Promethean challenge to heaven.
Eventually De Lacey’s son and daughter-in-law return from the fields and drive out the creature in horror, whereupon he burns them in their cottage. These scenes are the moral core of Shelley’s novel, and in placing them so early Dear signals that this is very much the monster’s show.
In fact, perhaps too much. For while the creature is the most fully realised, most sympathetic and inventive incarnation I have seen, Victor Frankenstein is left with little to do but recoil from him and neglect all his other duties, martial, filial and moral. It is very clear from the outset who is the real monster.
In this production the two lead actors – Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – alternate the roles of Victor and his creature. This Doppelgänger theme is not a new idea: in the stage adaptation by Peggy Webling that formed the basis of Whale’s movie, the creature appeared dressed like Victor (there renamed Henry), who foreshadows the later confusion of creator and creature by saying ‘I call him by my own name – he is Frankenstein.’ It motivates Dear’s decision to leave the duo locked in mutual torment at the end: a vision more true to their relationship than that of the novel itself.
The scientific elements of the tale are skated over. Mary Shelley provided just enough hints for the informed reader to make the connection with Luigi Galvani’s recent work on electrophysiology; Dear has Frankenstein mention galvanism and electrochemistry (somewhat anachronistically), but that is as far as it goes. There is no serious attempt, therefore, to make the play a comment on the ‘Promethean ambitions’ of modern science (as Pope John Paul II called them in 2002) – a relief not because modern science is unblemished but because the alchemical trope of a solitary experimenter exceeding the bounds of God and nature is no longer the relevant vehicle for a critique.
The staging of this production is spectacular, and intelligent choices were made in the structure (if not always in the dialogue). Miller was extraordinary as the creature on the night I saw it; by all accounts Cumberbatch is equally so. Whether Dear adds anything new to the legend – as Whale and even Mel Brooks did – is debatable. But it is well to be reminded that the novel may be read not so much as a Gothic tale of monstrosity and presumption but as a comment on the consequences of how we treat one another.