A bell tolls, echoing thunderously in a cavernous room. Lights flash, with thousands of bulbs brightening, then slowly dimming. Scarcely adorned with sets or props, the stage’s wooden planks stretch far and wide, transforming the theatre into a desolate wasteland. Hoisted up on stilts, a fleshy circular pod draws the eye. It’s meant to, resembling the type of contraption David Cronenberg might make if he turned Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man into a sculpture. Next, a figure tumbles out as if dropping from a birth canal, then flops, grunts and shudders across the ground.
This is how Danny Boyle’s stage production of FRANKENSTEIN begins, in a way that fans have never before seen — not in the many theatre and film adaptations that have previously brought the influential gothic horror novel to life, and not even in one’s mind while perusing the pages of FRANKENSTEIN; OR, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS. Of course, there’s never a bad time to revisit Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, and rarely a bad way to do so. But when this version explores the story of an experimenting scientist and the living creature he crafts out of muscle and tissue, it does so in a visually sparse yet thematically, intellectually and emotionally visceral manner — and the result is so stunning, it blows every other version out of the water.
With the director of TRAINSPOTTING, 28 DAYS LATER, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIR AND 127 HOURS at the helm, award-wining screenwriter and playwright Nick Dear penning the script, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as co-leads, Naomie Harris in support, and Underworld providing the soundtrack, this take on the tale boasts plenty of highlights from the outset. In fact, it could’ve merely relayed the familiar story in a recognisable way and still worked a treat. As staged by the UK’s Royal National Theatre, though, that’s not the path that this version of FRANKENSTEIN chooses. No one ever shouts “it’s alive!”, but this interpretation of one of literature’s greatest works couldn’t be more lively. There are no neck bolts in the minimalistic affair either, but this is as detailed and devastating a vision of FRANKENSTEIN as audiences have witnessed (and, as faithful to the source material).
Filmed in 2011, intermittently screening in cinemas since, and currently streaming for free on National Theatre’s YouTube channel, this is the type of adaptation that forces viewers to reconsider a well-known tale with fresh eyes. Indeed, if you haven’t seen Boyle’s production, then you haven’t experienced Shelley’s novel at its most intimate, intricate, contemplative and powerful (other than on the page, obviously). Hers is a story of torment and woe, of reanimating the dead and wrestling with mortality, of a scientist grappling with bestowing life as his creation struggles with existence — and while many past stage and screen interpretations have joined these pieces together, none have in quite as smart, thrilling and moving a fashion. (Or, with dueling Sherlocks, with SHERLOCK’s Cumberbatch and ELEMENTARY's Miller not only taking on Frankenstein’s adversarial main roles, but alternating parts each night, turning in blistering performances in the process.)
As first conjured by Shelley during a story-writing contest with friends, then initially published anonymously 202 years ago, the overall tale remains the same in Boyle and Dear’s hands. Obsessed with bridging the chasm between life and death, Victor Frankenstein resurrects a figure stitched from human corpses — then reviles the being from the moment it takes its first steps and breaths. That leaves the creature alone, attempting to make his way in the world, and finding kindness, acceptance, and anything other than hatred sorely lacking. When he returns to his maker, wiser and more experienced but internally and externally bruised and beaten by humanity’s cruelty, he’s determined to do what he must to convince Victor to make him a female companion.
So far, so standard narrative-wise. When James Whale brought the tale to cinemas in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN and 1935’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, he emphasised the story’s horrors then bathed in its pathos, with his adaptation treading an overarching course followed by Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film, TV’s PENNY DREADFUL, and almost everything in-between. And yet, Boyle’s version stands out, thanks to its boldness and thoughtfulness in several crucial creative choices. His take on the tale isn’t afraid to ruminate not just on morality, existence, and the purpose and importance of each — gothic literature’s favourite subject — but on the commonalities between its two main figures. And, as it does so, it wants nothing else to get in its way.
Penned by someone well-versed in tragedy — experiencing the pain of loss, of her mother, from infancy — FRANKENSTEIN has always been an account of living and dying. That’s the simple version, with the hubris of believing mortality can be beaten, the suffering both being born and facing death can bring, and the quest to understand the meaning of existence all baked into Shelley’s tale (as befitting its origins in Promethean myth). So too are class and gender inequities, and their role in determining one’s fate. Also relevant: the tussle between nature and nurture. Plus, FRANKENSTEIN unpacks humanity’s yearning to connect and belong, as well as the juxtaposing propensity to belittle, judge and shun, particularly when anything appears different or even monstrous.
All these notions swirl through Boyle’s version, pumping in the veins of its main attraction: its two-hander showdown. This tale is also one of battle, as two men fight with each other and with their own nature, never realising that they’re opposite sides of the same coin. There’s no better way to illustrate that than to focus on Victor and the creature’s confrontations, of which there are several. Here, each war of words provides the production’s set pieces, with the stage pared back to push the performances into the spotlight. This version still fleshes out its main pair — in fact, it spends almost its entire first half following the creature as, abandoned and alone, he experiences the world — but it pulsates with feverish urgency and unshakeable weight when Victor and the being he made go head-to-head philosophically and physically.
Actually, there’s one better way to stress the link between Victor and the creature, as has always been so pivotal to Shelley’s story. It’s a masterstroke — and it requires audiences to watch Boyle’s production twice, letting the two shows jostle, jolt and jumble in the mind. Tasking Cumberbatch and Miller with swapping roles is an inspired decision, not just to make full use of the two stars, but to forever connect the tale’s two main figures. How better to demonstrate that, depending on circumstances and twists of fate, we could all be both Victor and the creature? How better to depict the arbitrary choices that deem one person a genius and another an outcast? How better to question, too, just who is the real monster?
The result: two hours of riveting existential turmoil, as given flesh and form by two performers who literally know what it’s like to wear the other character’s rags. Boyle has always had a way with actors, especially when they’re facing off and slinging probing dialogue, and he’s in his element here. As are Cumberbatch and Miller, deservedly sharing an Olivier Award (the UK’s equivalent of the Tonys) for Best Actor in a Drama for their soulful and stirring portrayals. They don’t imitate each other. Whether playing Victor or the creature, they both give the part their own spin (as the creature, Cumberbatch is more tortured and sorrowful and Miller more frenzied and ferocious, for example). But, in laying bare the complex will to live, survive, create life, thwart death and find purpose — as FRANKENSTEIN always has, and as this unmissable production does so expertly and exactingly — they’re two halves of the same endlessly compelling whole.