“Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.” – Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
I have somehow liked the adaptations of Frankenstein whether direct (Penny Dreadful and now the National Theatre’s Frankenstein) or indirect (Westworld) more than the book itself. The story always reminded me of a Caravaggio painting – the profound expression of darkness in the form of rage, vengeance or violence. This is why I think that perhaps the horror of the themes in Frankenstein– the cruelty, deception, evil – are better interpreted visually, which makes it more horrifying and hence, evokes a more intensive emotional reaction. For instance: Rory Kinnear’s Creature in Penny Dreadful had this vibe of extreme melancholy and lyricism, which permeated into the viewer.
This permeability is what makes Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein a potent experience. You are present in every moment, every dialogue and expression.
In the encore version I watched, Jonny Lee Miller (who I had first watched play 2 Austen Heroes – Mr. Knightley in Emma and Charles Price in Mansfield Park and hence, I could never have imagined as anything other than controlled, sweet and ‘regular-boyish’) was the creature and Benedict Cumberbatch was the ambitious Doctor Victor Frankenstein.
There are of course changes from the novel, many of them welcome. Some of the irrelevant and meandering storylines were edited out and the anti-Islam sentiments thankfully removed. But, perhaps the most powerful change is making the creature the focal point. He is omnipresent almost like God even in the few scenes he is absent in – his presence a constant warning.
With one of the most extraordinary scenes I have seen on television, cinema or in a play, the play starts with the newly ‘born’ creature bursting forth from a frame shaped like an embryo or an egg – the universal symbol of evolution and birth. It’s symbolic and a reminder that ‘look, this is a child, don’t be mistaken by its appearance’. The appearance itself is visceral, shocks the viewer, I even felt appalled. Think of a child struggling to speak, learning to walk – its struggle to get up and falling down, his struggle to mouth words that come out like nonsense is ‘adorable’. Yet, in the first scene, when this giant ‘child’ does the same, it’s somehow terrifying and empathy inducing at the same time. The very physicality of Jonny Lee Miller in this scene is profound – as he rolls around the stage, with exclamations of pain and terror, the experience on his body of various undifferentiated sensations, a child fighting to survive its entrance, the world itself a frightening nightmare. Poetry is combined with horror in the scene. The creature’s first encounter with the world establishes the pattern – his struggle indicating that the world has already rejected him at birth and so the rest of the inhabitants of the world will follow suit.
(Picture: The Pass of Saint Gotthard, Switzerland – JMW Turner, Birmingham Museums And Art Gallery)
His terror inducing visage counteracts his real innocence and gentleness – he is a child, driven by curiosity and a hunger for affection. After the first few cruel rejections, he finally befriends a blind old man who is also ‘blind’ to the creature’s ‘imperfections’ that inspire fear and thus, only sees the goodness. The creature through the old man learns language and great literature, thus understands the dichotomies of love vs. hate, loyalty vs. deception, kindness vs. cruelty, acceptance vs. rejection, and he understands that though like the old man, there are people blessed with the positive ends of the dichotomies, he is
doomed to experience only the negative ones. The brief period of happiness gives away to devastating rage towards his creator who had abandoned him. The innocence gives away to violence and destruction. Jonny Lee Miller’s transition to a menacing figure is almost frightening to see. And just like the viewer feels the struggle of his first frightened steps into the world, they also feel his pain and rage at the rejection – it truly does get under your skin.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Victor Frankenstein is different from the book, though his core characteristics remain. The book Victor is arrogant, suffers from victim complex, is irresponsible – the same goes for the play version. Yet, in the book, there is a depiction of the contrast between the way he treats his own people vs. the creature. His kindness, worry and love for Elizabeth, his fiancé, his father and brother on one hand and his rejection of the creature on the other because he is different from him implies the human tendency to push those who do not fit to the edges of the society. The play version, on the other hand, is tailored to represent science – I think there’s a beauty to this depiction too.
Just to diverge for a bit, Romanticism was a movement that came as a reaction against Enlightenment – it was the war of emotions, humanity and beauty against cold logic and reason. So, it’s almost as if Victor in the play represents this era of Enlightenment – cold, emotionless rationality with little regard for either the creature or even his family, with a God syndrome . Contrast that with the emotions of the creature – he feels every emotion very intensely. Who then is the human? Who then is the monster?
Victor represents man’s arrogance and his need to push boundaries that shouldn’t be pushed. I think one of the scenes from the book that implied this was his creation of the monster – his obsessive, almost insatiable search for the ‘spark of life’ depicted his megalomania. That was there in the play in parts, but I would have loved to see the creation part of it.
As the creature and the doctor, Miller and Cumberbatch are perfect foils to each other. Moreover, my main complaint from the book about the lack of emotional resonance of the characters is resolved here because of a three dimensional account of especially the creature. This is a devastatingly real account of man’s capability for cruelty and destruction.
Ultimately, what I took away the most was Miller’s performance – one of the most resonating and remarkable ones I have seen, haunting in its near lyricism as well as deeply disturbing.