The Creature’s Speech: Never mind Colin Firth, Frankenstein’s Creature finally finds his voice at The National

Posted by Sharon Deans on February 25, 2011 in Blog, Reviews tagged with , , , , , ,

I will not torture you.  I will reason with you.  Isn’t that what we do?  Have a dialogue?’

So says the Creature to an astounded and fearful Victor in playwright Nick Dear’s stunning, conceptual adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein currently playing at the National Theatre in London.  And what a dialogue it is, with the two protagonists duelling and debating throughout.  Nick Dear’s intention with this piece was to give the Creature his voice back: although Mary Shelley had given him a voice, most adaptations have not, and so the play opens from the Creature’s point of view.  The play then balances this focus on the Creature with his obsession with his creator, and this, say Nick Dear and director Danny Boyle, is why they came up with the idea of double casting their actors and making the parts equal. But we gothicists know better: the cross casting also serves to emphasise the notion that the Creature is, in fact, Victor’s double.  Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternate the roles of Victor and the Creature nightly.  This really is one of the ‘hottest tickets in town’, and I was lucky enough to see it in preview last week; and, since it is the first thing anyone asks me, I will tell you that a naked Jonny Lee Miller was ‘my’ Creature, and a frock-coated, high-cheekboned Cumberbatch was ‘my’ Victor (reader, I was in seventh heaven with both!)

The audience is not allowed to enter the theatre until ten minutes before the play begins, and it is a highly atmospheric entrance.  The lighting is dark, dim, and a womb-like red; a large bell tolls; an electronic pulse/heartbeat sounds; an odd looking pod or pupa revolves slowly around the stage, and we can see the silhouette of a figure twitching within.  Slowly a figure begins to emerge, and eventually a naked, stitched-together Creature breaks free and ‘births’ onto the stage, accompanied by a crackling electronics and pounding bass soundtrack.  What follows is an astounding piece of physical theatre as the inarticulate Creature, alone on the stage for around fifteen minutes, slowly becomes accustomed to the world around him.  He crawls, sprawls and stutters, and we are reminded of the birth of a foal or a calf; it is both scary and compelling – and oddly tender.  This ‘birth’ of an adult is not natural, however, and he struggles with horrible spasms and tremors before he can gain his feet; indeed, the spasms and tremors never leave him throughout the play, no matter how physically and mentally agile he becomes.

Abandoned, the Creature runs away into the night, making his way through an early-industrial landscape, noisy, smoggy and strange.  There are strange noises, sounds of forges, factories, coaches and animals.  Electricity is in the air.  This is all depicted and controlled by an impressive, triangular lighting feature that hangs above the stage and reaches out over the audience – imagine Concorde hovering above you.  It contains a battery of differently-shaped bulbs that flash blindingly, radiate heat and, conversely, illustrate the cold climes of Scotland, and later, the polar ice-cap; it is all very steam-punk and very clever indeed  (I was reminded of the scene from last year’s excellent ‘family horror’ film The Hole, where Bruce Dern’s mad scientist character, ‘Creepy Carl’, who is scared of the dark, hides in a room surrounded by a light display – only this one is suspended from above).  The steam-punk strand continues and climaxes with the arrival of a fabulous (if rather weird) train, accompanied by some sort of hybrid Victorian-folk/electro-beat singing.   This may sound bizarre, but it works really well.  The British electronic group Underworld have certainly made an excellent job of scoring Frankenstein, and I found myself wishing I could get a copy of the haunting soundtrack.

The Creature is chased out of town and wakes the next day in the countryside.  This is a joyful scene; he is Adam in the Garden of Eden – an innocent.  He listens to birdsong, he tries to flap his wings, he imitates birdsong.  Rain falls, the gentle touch of moisture pleases him.  He washes himself in the rain.  He wanders through the woods, learning the taste of things.  Many moons ago, in an undergraduate essay I wrote on Frankenstein, I described this scene from the novel as ‘presciently Disneyesque’; my tutor gently but firmly pointed out that, for the purposes of academia, it is, of course, Rousseauean.  However, this is not an academic piece, and I am going to stick with Disney; as we watch the Creature in the woods, he is just like Bambi rejoicing in the world around him, and we are rooting for him all the way.  This expressionistic opening is fabulous, but hard to sustain.  Due to the compressed timescale, the play then rips through the story at a cracking pace, and the real intelligence of the play becomes clear.  The creature finds himself at the DeLacey cottage: a sort of see-through Wendy house (I told you it was conceptual); in this version he is befriended by the old and blind DeLacey, and actively educated by him, in secret, over the course of a year whilst the sister and brother are at work in the fields (we are back in Bambi territory at one point when the Creature, bored with his lesson on original sin, dances in the snow: ‘White! What? White! What?).  This works better than Shelley’s own device of the ‘chink in the wall’.  ‘Ideas batter me like hailstones.  Questions but no answers.  Who am I?  Where am I from?’ the Creature cries during this brief experience of kindness.  He has no memory, and mankind confuses him.  We band together in cities to help one another, and then we massacre each other.  He does not like the inconsistency of humankind, he does not like inconsistency at all, as we soon learn.

Worn down by the hostility and physical violence he is met with, the Creature soon learns revenge; he torches the DeLacey’s cottage, killing them all, and he brutally and purposefully kills William to get to Frankenstein: ‘If I had killed half of Ingolstadt, would you have come?’. However, through his reading of poetry, the Creature also dreams of love, and he pleads with Frankenstein to make him a companion in some sharp and funny confrontations: ‘A moment ago you were amazed at my intellect, but now you harden your heart.  Please do not be inconsistent, I find it infuriating!  All I ask is the possibility of love.’ From this point on there is scarcely a rest between bouts as the two characters verbally fight it out from scene to scene, from Mont Blanc to Scotland and back to Geneva.

Love is at the heart of this play, as Victor himself comes to realise that he is incapable of that emotion on any level.  We see that he skilfully avoids any meaningful intercourse with Elizabeth, social or sexual, in their scenes together.  Victor and the Creature discuss love and the possibility of the Creature having a soul, and it is after a heartbreaking moment in which it becomes clear that the Creature is more capable of love than Victor himself is that he decides to destroy the female he has been creating.  The audience is distraught.  But not as distraught as we are left in the penultimate scene, when the Creature follows Victor to his wedding day.

The Creature accosts Elizabeth in her bridal chamber, but soon gains her confidence through the logic of his dialogue.  He promises he will not hurt her.  They chat, and Elizabeth offers to be his friend, it is touching.  She takes his hand, and asks what he is good at:

I am good at the art of assimilation.  I have watched, and listened, and learnt.  At first I knew nothing at all.  But I studied the ways of men, and slowly I learnt; how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate.  And at the feet of my master, I learnt the highest of human skills, the skill no other creature owns:  I finally learnt how to lie.

And the entire audience gasps as we realise the implication of this.  The Creature has promised not to hurt Elizabeth, but he has learned how to lie.  What follows is fast, brutal and truly shocking – there were screams from the audience.  To the horror of all, Victor, who has broken in on them, hangs back in appalled fascination during this scene.  After Elizabeth’s death he insists that he can bring her back to life, and the entire household thinks him mad: ‘My mind is superb! It’s superb!’ he shouts as he is restrained and taken away;  M. Frankenstein (his father) weeps uncontrollably: ‘What have I brought into the world?’ he cries, meaning his son, and we all agree.

The last scene sees Victor pursuing the Creature to the polar ice-cap inside the Arctic Circle. Each is obsessed with the other, each wants to kill the other, yet at the same time they are co-dependent.  It is a truly wonderful piece of theatre.  We leave them with Victor near death, and the Creature gleefully calling for further debate.

There is so, so much to say about this play, but I hope I have given at least a flavour of it here.  The setting is superb, the soundtrack haunting, the lighting breathtaking, but the laurels go, naturally, to Miller and Cumberbatch and the dialogue between them.  The exchanges between the Creature and old DeLacey are also worth noting.  The other members of the cast are weak however, victims of poor casting and poor scripting, but it is of no consequence, they are a mere background to the top-billing double-act.  For the record, the Creature steals the show, regardless, I think, of who is playing him.

The production is sold out, but the run will be extended ’til April, with more tickets on sale from March.  There is, however, an opportunity to see the play locally.  For the first time ever, National Theatre Live will broadcast two separate performances of a production. Audiences in participating cinemas around the country will have the chance to see both combinations, with two broadcasts a week apart:  Broadcast dates are 17 and 24 March.  Local readers can see it at the Cameo in Edinburgh, and the Glasgow Film Theatre – but book now, tickets are selling fast.

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