Frankenstein

National Theatre Live broadcast on Sunday, April 3.

Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and the modern myth it spawned are often interpreted as a simple jeremiad against the overreach of science and technology. The unsympathetic protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, is seen as a prototypical mad scientist, undertaking something unforgivably “unnatural,” attempting to usurp the role of God. To be perfectly frank, that reading of the story bores me. If Victor’s project is completely and inherently indefensible, both from a narrative and a thematic perspective, what else is there to say about it? What’s the point?

The thing is, there is more to say about Frankenstein, and Victor’s sins are far more extensive than heresy (which, as far I’m concerned, is a between-you-and-your-conscience thing anyway). The Royal National Theatre’s new stage adaption of the work understands that—and, not coincidentally, it hews relatively close to its source material. The result is a disturbing, emotionally fraught portrait of a man and his neglected progeny, a parable of grossly irresponsible stewardship and devastating generational conflict. Provocative and creepy, this Frankenstein transcends knee-jerk alarmism and theological pap. It’s a horror story worth being horrified by.

Written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle (who got his start in the theater but made his name directing films such as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire), the play moves relentlessly, without intermission, from the “birth” of the unnamed Creature to the surreal coda in the Arctic Circle, with Frankenstein and his creation locked in endless pursuit. The gimmick of the production is that actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternate from performance to performance between the two main parts, a stratagem said to give each a more profound understanding of the work and thus a more nuanced, compelling interpretation of the two characters. I’m inclined to think it’s a just a gimmick to sell more tickets, but perhaps that’s unfair. In the performance Sean and I saw—broadcast live from the Royal National Theatre in London, with Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Miller as the Creature—the lead actors were nuanced and compelling, their interactions the highlight of the whole event.

Cumberbatch is best known for playing the titular protagonist in the miniseries Sherlock, and between that and his Frankenstein, he’s proved an uncanny talent for portraying sociopaths. The two characters are still quite different, of course—Sherlock has a brittle sort of charm and a sense of discipline that Victor completely lacks—but both men have a dismaying lack of empathy that must be difficult to carry off with any sense of shading. Cumberbatch finds the shades. His Victor is brilliant but shockingly immature, part of him still the young boy he was when his mother died. His juvenile aversion to human sexuality, as embodied by his warmly sensual fiancée, Elizabeth (Naomi Harris), starts out as merely pitiful but becomes skin-crawlingly pathological when, after fleeing Elizabeth, he does develop an unspoken attraction to the lifeless, pliable body of the Creature’s would-be companion. As portrayed by Cumberbatch, Victor is no tragic hero; he’s a loathsome man-boy, utterly incapable of living up to his responsibilities as a husband, a father-creator, or a genius. He’s despicable.

With Victor so unappealing, it’s tempting to make the Creature the hero, or at least the anti-hero, but the play doesn’t make that easy. To be sure, the Creature endures vicious, violent rejection and torment from virtually everyone he meets, beginning in his first waking moments with Victor. That rejection is all the more painful for the way Miller plays the newly conscious creature: as an infant, struggling to learn to walk, to speak, to gain control of his ungainly limbs. It’s an astonishingly physical performance, vulnerable and heartbreaking, from the initial toddler-like steps to the bewildered yelps when frightened townfolk attack him. Eventually, though, he learns and hardens, and after a particularly traumatic assault, he retaliates for the first time, burning down a cottage with those who call it home—people for whom he had once felt great affection—still inside. Even more disturbing than the Creature’s vengeance, though, is the way he seems to take such pleasure in it. Miller plays him with a twisted edge, his fear and anger and loneliness curdled into glee at seeing others suffer. He toys with Victor and—in the horrific climax of the play—with Elizabeth. He might have learned cruelty honestly, but the relish with which he takes to it himself is impossible to stomach.

So with such ugly central characters and everyone else backgrounded, how is Frankenstein even bearable? Because it’s so fascinating. Victor would keep Freud busy for years, and the Creature, educated first by a blind former professor and then by his own extensive reading, eventually becomes eloquent and darkly insightful as he argues for the future he wants.

The production is visually compelling as well, simple and stark, with a few odd steampunk flourishes and dramatic use of light. What’s more, Boyle clearly was thinking about how he would film it even as he conceived it theatrically (the National Theatre is pushing its new live-broadcast initiative hard), and the RNT’s Olivier Theatre is well suited for such a project. Its round open stage, with the audience fanning around nearly two-thirds of its circumference, allows the camera wide freedom of movement. Boyle also makes great use of strategically timed close-ups and dramatically angled overhead shots without ever becoming jumpy or distracting from the actors’ performances.

And that, of course, is what matters most, especially with performances such as these. Together with Dear’s perceptive screenplay, Cumberbatch and Miller dig past the clichés of the oft-told tale to find the heart of the story, still fresh and provocative nearly two centuries after Shelley first wrote her novel.