In 1818, a teenager shook the world with a ghastly re-telling of Prometheus in a more modern setting, and in doing so, she gave the world the ultimate classic of horror/science fiction. 200 years after Mary Shelley brought Frankenstein to life on the written page, Fathom Events is bringing the most successful adaptation back to theaters for a two-day event. The first was October 22, the next is still to come, on October 29.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller, Director Danny Boyle has brought Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s creation to stage in a way that has all but breathed new life into the franchise. While the story of the man and the monster probably need no introduction, some things are best not left to their own devices. Traumatized by the loss of his mother and determined to conquer death, Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant scientist whose obsession with life takes him to university where he spends 6 long years studying the complexities of all sciences. At the end of his studies, he emerges from his obsession successful: a man has created life in a means most unnatural to the traditions of his time. What follows is a tragedy of consequence, a play of trauma, lack of foresight, and vengeance.
The creative team behind this theatrical adaptation chose a brilliant starting point. Instead of focusing on Doctor Victor Frankenstein, they instead set the stage with a bladder-like womb containing the monster. What follows is a birth that is at once grotesque and utterly riveting. Human babies are born to a cold world, unable to comprehend, unable to process, unable to articulate, unable to do anything other than just scream and suffer the chill reality that they were pushed out into. The Monster, on the other hand, emerges from his bladder with all the fully-developed higher processes of an adult, yet suffering the re-connection of every single synapse in its body. What follows is a fifteen-minute segment that seems pulled from the horrors of a nightmare. The monster convulses, flops around the stage, flails uncontrollably, and stumbles with an infant’s grotesqueness married by the shudders of both Cerebral Palsy and Parkinson’s. The monster’s instincts are true, and within this fascinating birth, we move slack-jawed with the monster as he eventually finds his feet, and pulls himself upright.
This is no tale of a spoiled, obsessed man. This is birth in all its ugly glory, but in a very uniquely Frankensteinian manner. With this simple choice, of showing existence through the monster’s experience, this play serves to humanize the monster in a manner that intrinsically connects the audience to his struggles. I’m paraphrasing here, but there is saying along the lines that a smart person knows that Frankenstein is not the monster, and a wise person understand that Frankenstein is the monster. The whole play comes across as a study of this concept. When Frankenstein casts out the monster for being hideous, the audience is forced to follow the monster through the horrific struggles of its life, and in doing so, we develop a sympathetic hatred for the loveless doctor and his dismissal of all things beautiful in life.
The real genius of the play, however, is not the story-telling. The real genius lies in the casting of the principal antagonist and the tortured soul that he gave life to. There have been three distinctly different actors to portray Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes in recent years. The two genuine Brits to play him, Cumberbatch (in BCC’s Sherlock), and Miller (CBS’s Elementary), bring their prodigious talents to the stage. In a truly inspired decision, director Boyle had the two men alternate roles. One night, Cumberbatch would don the patchwork make-up of the monster, and the following night, it would be Miller whose body would bear the scars of the Doctor’s surgical recreation. In doing so, Boyle created an event, one that encouraged at least a second viewing of his play.
Sadly, I am like the wretched monster in my misfortune; I am able to see one version of this play rather than being blessed enough to witness both actors shine in the beast’s flesh. For my part, however, I think I lucked out in seeing how Cumberbatch portrayed the beast. I honestly cannot even begin to describe how richly the thespian pulled his stitches together so show the complex progression from birth through education at the hands of a cruel world, to a single friendship, to the wretch so obsessed with his creator that he can fathom no existence other than in being a living foil to the Doctor. The physical motions were jerky and erratic, just like a survivor of a physical trauma having to relearn his body. His vocal ticks were brilliant and stuttered with pain and frustration. Sweat poured off his body as spittle flew from his lips in his grotesque efforts to speak. This was a man truly transformed – not just in make-up, but in temperament and tone. This was a performance of a lifetime, and it was crushing. Every awkward step of his existence, I yearned for the world to take him in and offer him some shelter, just a hint of love and acceptance.
But the story of Frankenstein/The Monster is not a happy one. There is no joy to be had in marriage or nature, or in family. The tragedy is the hatred that fuels the loveless creator and his despised offspring. Yet in their mutual hatred, there is a kind of peace – a love, even. Like the monster, itself, the love between master and creation is grotesque. It is a mockery of comfort and harmony, yet once the two have stripped away all other connections from one another, they are left in a balanced existence of solitude: the hunter and the hunted.
Frankenstein is a haunting tale that doesn’t shy from the bigger issues on Mary Shelley’s iconic tale, and in its few tiny glimpses of humor, it makes the characters all the more poignantly tragic. Indeed, I think that if Shelley could see this production, she would be floored by how horrible this story really is. I doubt she could watch this and not wonder at the horrors she created, and how it might truly look if it existed in the real world. Or maybe not. Perhaps, at the end of this play, she would track Boyle down and shake his hand for bringing such a terrible tale to such vivid, beautiful, grotesque life.
Check out the Trailer to suckle a taste of this remarkable play.
For those that are not too late, Jonny Lee Miller’s cut as the monster can still be caught in cinemas on October 29th. I honestly can’t recommend this more. You would do yourself a tremendous favour this Halloween by seeing it.
~ The Queen has spoken.