I was fortunate enough to get highly sought after tickets for the National Theatre’s current production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle, on Friday evening. It is a new adaptation for the theatre of the Mary Shelley classic, and I found it one of the most powerful and demanding pieces of theatre I think I have ever seen. The creator of the monster, Frankenstein, and the monster itself, are played on alternate evenings by Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. From the moment we entered the theatre, we were prepared for a two hour interval-less onslaught on the senses, and the intellect, by a startlingly loud real church bell suspended over the auditorium which periodically tolled as we were taking our seats, nearly scaring the living daylights out of some people!
The opening scene shows the monster emerging naked and dirty from a sort of artificial ‘womb’ suspended inside a large hoop. It then proceeds to writhe around the stage as it learns to walk and be at ease in the physical in an unsettling parody of a child’s first year of life.
The questions and challenges the play threw up are legion. We see the monster being ridiculed and persecuted as it goes out into society because of its grotesque appearance, a challenge perhaps to the way society treats those who are different or not ‘normal’. The only real friendship it forms is with a blind woodsman. When his son returns he reacts with revulsion and the monster is duly hounded out of the house. There are many references to coming to terms with what we have created, and at times Frankenstein appears almost to be speaking the mind of God, lamenting the way in which created beings abuse their freedom. I also felt that we were being encouraged to reflect on the possible consequences of the manipulation of human life which modern science allows us.
More widely than this, a further theme was the consequences of brutalizing and scape-goating one element of society, which we were responsible for bringing into being in the first place. We have the one tantalizing glimpse, in the friendship the monster makes with the blind woodsman, who is in fact a former professor, of how the monster could have become had he been treated with respect and offered education. The monster – ‘he’ I should perhaps say – is just starting to show signs of behaving as a ‘civilised’ and educated ‘human’ when he is driven away again in a scene reminiscent of the literal biblical scape-goat. It is society’s ill-treatment of the monster, created by man in the first place, which ultimately causes the tragedy which ends the piece – the monster becomes a rapist and a murderer, and unlike his creator, survives the end of the play.
The play is not only brilliantly and innovatively produced and directed, it also cuts thematically right to the core of some of the central questions we face. Do we have the right to act in the place of God? What are the consequences? How do we with deal with difference in our society? Do we join the mob’s reaction to people who are not like us? What is the role of human relationships in a world scientific by scientific ‘progress’? How important is liberal education in making us fully human? How can we come to terms with the world and society we are creating? What are we storing up when we collectively persecute and brutalise individuals or groups?
I believe it is practically impossible to get tickets for the play a the National Theatre now, other than returns, but it is being ‘streamed’ into a number of cinemas, over the coming weeks and this might be a good alternative. It’s certainly on my recommended list!