I have a comment on the Prospect blog about the production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, which I saw this week. To save you a click, here it is anyway. I am reviewing the play more formally for Nature. It’s flawed but worth seeing – but if you haven’t got a ticket, tough luck, as it’s sold out. However, I believe you could still come to this.
Do not go to see the Monstrous Drama, founded on the improper work called FRANKENSTEIN!!! Do not take your wives, do not take your daughters, do not take your families!!!
Actually, although the latest adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story at the National Theatre, scripted by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, includes nudity and a rape that would certainly not have featured in the 1823 staging that prompted this warning, there is little here that would shock most wives and daughters. Even the Grand Guignol gore in the draft script has been toned down. One scene even turns into a dance routine like some monstrous hybrid of Oliver! and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
None of this is a bad thing. Some is very good: the staging is spectacular, the adaptation largely thoughtful and the monster – I can comment only on Jonny Lee Miller’s version in the show’s alternation of lead roles – is the most inventive and heartfelt I have seen, owing something to Caliban, Charles Laughton’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and even the Elephant Man. Some of the secondary performances creak, and some of the dialogue is throwaway, but the main problem is the title character.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Victor Frankenstein on the night I saw it, did all a versatile, intelligent actor of his calibre could be expected to do with the lines he was given. But about halfway through the production, the penny dropped as to why he seemed to be struggling. He is the Mad Scientist.
True, he does not cackle like Gene Wilder or shriek Colin Clive’s line from James Whale’s seminal movie – ‘Now I know what it feels like to be God!’ But that’s part of the problem: not even naked madness motivates his egotistical quest, his utter neglect of his doting fiancée, his contempt for the ‘little men with little lives’, his lack of real anguish about his child brother’s murder. From the outset it is clear that he is a stranger to human feeling and has not the slightest real interest in developing his knowledge of reanimation for ‘medical research’. Set against a creature who we see develop from its ‘birth’ and first baby steps to a state of savage grace and wisdom, all the time spurned and despised for looking no worse than a person flung through a windscreen, there is never any doubt who is the real monster.
I don’t think it makes much sense for scientists to feel indignant at this portrayal. Frankenstein has for so long been the archetype of the mad scientist that another representation as literal as this can’t elaborate on that image. And anyone who could entertain the notion that this cold, amoral individual experimenting in misanthropic solitude for nothing but personal glory bears the slightest resemblance to the modern scientist is already too biased and ignorant to argue with. This Frankenstein is a fairy-tale figure, like the wicked witch or the evil stepmother. The only harm this can do today is in dramatic terms: villains need to be either more complex or more exuberantly depraved to work as central characters. For all its virtues, Nick Dear’s adaptation in the end takes the easier option in making us love the monster. A production that tries to make us feel sympathy for Victor, a useless but confused and struggling father – now that would be an interesting challenge.