Nick Dear’s new adaptation of Frankenstein for the National Theatre was an extremely successful play before the show even opened. An Oscar-winning director in Danny Boyle, star draw from Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, and the twist of having the leads alternate the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature – the seats sold unsurprisingly fast. With productions like this you can often pick up a ticket on the day, if you don’t mind standing at the back of the circle and staying out of the way of the ushers. On this occasion I was the 78th person to enquire about standing room by eleven o’clock that morning – the girl at the box office politely refrained from laughing in my face, and managed to squeeze me in to the performance after next. I think it was largely out of pity: bless that rip in my corduroy jacket I’d forgotten to repair.
I felt less kindly towards the jacket when returning later to actually see the play: an absolutely freezing wind was coming across the south bank of the Thames and smacking the river up against the pilings of Waterloo Bridge. Taking the route under the bridge provided a bit of shelter, but some chance (or failure of local authority regulation) had put busking saxophonists either side of it, so the whole path felt like a ghastly experiment on the effects of the Doppler shift when combined with hypothermia. Out from under the bridge to be greeted by giant figures capering across the side of the theatre: someone at the National had decided to project an old black and white Frankenstein movie onto a wall at the top of the building.
The theatre was just as imposing inside. The Olivier’s steep half-circle of an auditorium always has a vaguely ritualistic feel, and the designer had made the most of it. A bell was slung above one part of the audience, and on stage was a slowly revolving wooden structure that looked like a cross between the outline of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man and the frames used to flog eighteenth-century soldiers. Doesn’t sound much, but it looked horrible. Then something started trying to get out of it.
The show itself is a jumble of about three plays. There’s the story of how a creature came into the world, taught itself to walk, and then stumbled into the horror and glory of the world, which is sketched by brilliantly overwrought vignettes in lurid colours. The Creature is set upon by a collection of steam-punkish figures who arrive on a clanging machine of flywheels and funnels, hollering and dancing to techno-inflected folk tunes. He wakes up in a sunrise where strings of birds fly out of wheat-sheaves, and drinks the rain. By the time the house descends from the sky with William Blake drawings on the roof, the hint is hardly necessary: these scenes are intense and unashamed in a way which harks back to Blake’s own work. They might not be terribly subtle or hold much emotional nuance, but they’re incredibly memorable.
Secondly, it’s a cracking good horror yarn in places. There are some terrific “There’s something in the sack!” or “What’s that climbing down the wall?” moments, and Danny Boyle really knows how to deploy a flash of lightning. Steering clear of too much mad-scientist “It livessss!” stuff allows him to direct this part of the show with the kind of punch which movie-goers will remember from his film Shallow Grave. This is a violent story and Boyle makes sure it gets its due by not allowing it to drift into simple monster territory. You can’t imagine cheering along at the nasty bits like the crowd in a horror cinema. And some bits are really quite nasty: there’s an age-limit of fifteen for a reason, and there’s nothing camp or quaint about the grim stuff.
Finally, it’s a play about two men who keep meeting in isolated parts of the world to discuss the essential nature of humanity. As Victor and the Creature meet on mountain-tops, or glaciers, or in the Scottish islands, this element reminds me of chamber-epics like Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. There’s a lot of talk, admittedly, but it’s taut, emotional talk, full of unexpected turns of logic and quiet shifts in sympathy. The fact that both actors will play both roles during the run is a reflection of a more general concern within the play to show how Victor and the Creature are each other’s mirror image. By the end neither have anything left, and they both need each other desperately to define their own existence, even as they are locked in an expedition to kill each other in the polar wastes. The Creature stammers and jerks out arguments drawn from Milton and Plutarch, whilst Victor is enraptured and repulsed at the same time.
At its best, it’s like Frayn. At its worst it involves Spelling Out Important Messages. Behold, Victor Is Actually The Monster, Not The Creature. Love Is More Important Than Knowledge. Evil Arises From Social Conditions, Not From Original Sin. This may not be Nick Dear’s fault (I remember some pretty clanging passages, as well as some truly dull ones, in the novel) but it does derail the play at times. After all, so much of the force of the story arises from tensions and ambiguities: the Creature has been wronged, but he has deliberately killed innocent people first out of rage and then out of rational calculation. Victor created his own doom by a wish to improve the world and help humanity, but recoiled at the arrival of what he had wished for. If the audience is presented with a clear moral, a statement of who is “in the right”, these tensions collapse, and the elaborate parallels between the two leads veer into collision. There are only lead characters: one of them cannot be morally more equal than the other. Aside from these moments, Cumberbatch and Miller are both absolutely superb, and their verbal duels make this play a gripping spectacle. If you’re going to see it, do remember to breathe in the scene changes.
This article originally appeared in California Literary Review, March 2011