Confession: I've never read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein all the way through. I think what happened is that I started it as a precocious kid, got bogged down, and never went back to it. I've never seen Whale's classic film version either. I did see Gods and Monsters, with Ian McKellen as Whale, (which has one of the funniest one liners ever-"Mr. Vale, I tink your moofies are not my teacup). I've also seen Young Frankenstein (Frau Blucher!), for what that's worth. Even still, as a reasonably educated person I have an idea of what it's all about just by osmosis. It's about industrialization, playing god, some early feminism, the thrill and the dangers of science, love, responsibility, and even more. Because it is all these things as well as a riproaring story, it has well earned its corner of the literary canon. I suppose I can't assert this, never having read it, but it has certainly infused our cultural knowledge.
So how exciting to see some big names attached to a play at the National Theatre derived from the source novel. Script by Nick Dear, directed by Danny Boyle (who was quite accomplished in directing for the stage before becoming a film name), it stars Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. I've written about Cumberbatch's "Sherlock" here, and I'm a big fan. Here's the other thing: the two leads switch the main roles. One night Miller plays Victor and Cumberbatch plays the Monster, then the next night, Miller plays the Monster and Cumberbatch plays Victor. The version I saw as screened by the Seattle International Film Festival Cinema was the latter.
In my view as a sometimes actor, I can definitely see the switch as less of a gimmick and more of a kindness to the actor playing the Monster. The play opens with his "birth"-emergence from a membrane and 10 minutes of speeded-up human development. He discovers his limbs, how to make sounds, how to sit, crawl, stand, walk, and run hooting with glee. He's a newborn in a thirty year old body. He's perpetually stitched together, an amalgam, somewhat unfinished, and the actor has to sustain that throughout the play. Even his vocal quality develops, but never perfectly-he can never quite get full fine motor control. What a challenge! However amazing it is from an acting point of view, I'm still undecided about that opening. It serves to orient the audience in the world of the play-steadfastly from the Monster's point of view, but it also seemed a bit...much, somehow. I kept asking myself, "Where's Victor?"
That is the point, though. Mary Shelley's Monster was not a mute, shambling creature, and neither is Boyle's. He discovers the warmth of the sun, the taste of the grass, and how to protect himself with his shawl all on his own. He learns. Oh, how he learns, mostly under the tutelage of the blind man. The parallels with childhood are quite sweet, with the Monster demanding "why?!" every minute, an exercise with which every parent of a 4 year old is well familiar. Through cultural osmosis, many of us know the main plot points as the Monster learns more about being a Man-with all the concomitant tragedy it brings.
I watch so much community theater it gives me a giddy frisson when I see theater with actual resources behind it. The sound design which uses Tom Waitsian industrial sounds as well as sounds of nature was notable in all the good ways. The rotating and level-changing set was both stark and emotional, both awe-inducing and unobtrusive. Some of the lighting was handled from hundreds of bulbs suspended from the ceiling. This worked on two levels, both artistically and as a reference to the time of the "birth" of electricity. I even goggled at the costumes. In the post-wedding scene, Victor had on a floor length silk coat that shimmered in the lights. Cumberbatch is a long tall drink of water, so that coat went on for miles.
It seems weird to critique a show I enjoyed so much, but there were a couple of things that didn't work, mainly the character of Victor's father (who ignored the corpse on the floor in the Scottish hut-didn't he see her?) and some of the script (Victor's fiance Elizabeth asking if Victor sent the Monster a wedding invitation was a groaner.) Finally, the theme of fearing the oncoming industrialization didn't feel particularly organic. Much like the Monster, it seemed like parts and pieces stitched together from the train, Elizabeth's line that Victor "worships the god of electricity and gas," etc. Science in general as a two-sided coin worked much better.
And love. Oh, that unique condition of humanity, which the Monster understands, but Victor does not. How poignant when Elizabeth implores him to create life, with her, through their love. And Victor says he does love her, but he leaves and shuts the door. All the Monster wants is a friend, leaving him and Victor bound together forever in their tragedy. Why? Is it Victor's hubris? Is it his exercise of his free will, however misguided? Or is it the Monster's exercise of his own will, bending Victor to his purpose?
This is why we still read Frankenstein and why we can enjoy such a fantastic new vision for it on the stage.