You’d almost expect the creative output of a woman whose courtship was largely held over the grave of her famous mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, to explore the boundary of life and death. Hardly surprising, then, that her first novel, Frankenstein, did just that. Conceived as a ‘waking dream’, Mary Shelley described her Frankenstein as “the offspring of happy days”, bidding her “hideous progeny go forth and prosper” in her introduction to the third edition in 1831. With two of own children dead in infancy while she travelled in Italy with her husband, Frankenstein was as much the labour of her loins as her surviving son, Percy Florence. Indeed, the excellent exhibition Shelley’s Ghost at the Bodleian Library shows Percy Bysshe Shelley’s edits to the first Frankenstein manuscript: a ‘child’ they brought up and out together.
Fitting then, that the opening to Danny Boyle’s production at the National Theatre was so poignantly one of birthing. A throbbing, increasingly engorging ring of tautly stretched fabric circles the stage, finally spitting out the Creature — who lies, twitching and naked upon the stage. Animal-like, rather than as a human-child, he finds his feet and vocal chords; too soon he is turned into the world to find his own destiny.
You have to hand it to cast and production, the audience was spellbound. Of course the whole thing had been subject to PR glory, what with the almost entire lack of poor reviews, sell-out run, cinematised performances, even down to the email sent around all audience members earlier in the day to “arrive on time: the opening scene is not to be missed”. Job done: my curiosity was aroused.
I just wish I could say that I’d felt satisfied by the play. Don’t get me wrong — the staging, set and the acting of the lead characters were unsurpassable. After the performance I attended, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor, I couldn’t imagine the parts played any other way with such skill. The lighting — a slash of bulbs streaking from the centre of the auditorium to the stage — highlighted the themes of the play perfectly. So quite why the scriptwriter, Nick Dear, felt the need to go on to explain them is beyond me.
Frankenstein explores myriad facets of humanity, from good and evil, to pride, compassion, beauty, social acceptance and alienation. All these topics are as relevant now as they were in the early 1800s, though of course – like many of Shakespeare’s plays – the ‘telling’ of them on stage to modern audiences has to have changed. In adapting the Frankenstein novel, Dear has ignored this prerogative. At times it seemed as if the dialogue was ticking off a checklist, devoting time to explaining what is being alluded to rather than fleshing out the thin supporting characters. By the time the Creature is cast out by the son and daughter of the blind man who educated him, the inevitability of the event leaves no room for surprise and little reason for the Creature to react with such terrible vengeance. Similarly, Cumberbatch’s excellent mirror acting of the other characters is enough to show his audience that he is not only trying to fit into and learning from society, but also that he is Victor’s nemesis – the Moriarty to his Sherlock. Why, then, the need to dwell so long on spelling it out as they make their ways across the ice to the Pole in the closing scenes?
Judging a short story competition last year, Zoe Heller said, “Many good stories (fail) at the final hurdle… by spelling out, with leaden seriousness, the ‘significance’ of what had gone before”. That’s my overriding impression of this production of Frankenstein. A scriptwriter as strong as Nick Dear ought to know that an audience will infer more than enough from staging, particularly when his leading actors and supporting cast are so strong.