Frankenstein for Critics at Large. A little over a year later, Steve Vineberg revisits the production for a second opinion.
The National Theatre’s mounting of Frankenstein, an adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel by Nick Dear and directed by filmmaker Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), was a hot ticket in London last year, and the HD transcription was popular enough for NT Live to bring it back for a second engagement a few weeks ago. There’s a casting gimmick: the two stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, switch off in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature – just as Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did in the last Broadway revival of Sam Shepard’s True West. In an interview that prefaces the HD screening, Boyle explains that the double casting is meant to comment on the relationship between the two characters. But that’s nonsense: creator and creation aren’t interchangeable, and Frankenstein and the Creature aren’t alter egos in the sense that the two brothers in True West (who trade places in the narrative) are. The Creature is Frankenstein’s Adam, or if you’re looking for a theatrical parallel, he’s to Frankenstein as Caliban is to Prospero in The Tempest.
Boyle goes on to claim that Shelley’s story has resonance for a twenty-first-century audience because though it’s the story of creation, God doesn’t appear in it. Well, not literally, but the novel carries an epigraph from Book X of Paradise Lost – Adam’s cry of despair to God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay / To mould me Man, did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?” – and when Frankenstein confesses to his bride, Elizabeth, that he’s manufactured a living man, her response is to censure him for taking God’s work on himself. Frankenstein is the quintessential romantic work: it’s about a man who dares to meddle in God’s territory and is punished for it; Frankenstein’s achievement is staggering but it leads him into darkness. It’s a tragedy, like Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound (which it bears considerable resemblance to). Frankenstein is an indisputable masterpiece of English literature, but not because you don’t have to believe in God to appreciate it (you don’t have to believe in God to love Hamlet either, though it’s a Christian play). Great works are timeless, not conveniently topical. Frankenstein hasn’t survived into the twenty-first century because it might generate a conversation, say, about cloning, any more than Uncle Vanya is great because in Dr. Astrov is an ecologist who makes a speech about the need to save the Russian forests.
|Director Danny Boyle|
|Benedict Cumberbatch & Naomie Harris|
The problem with Miller’s performance is that it doesn’t go anywhere; its point seems to be its physical and vocal cleverness. There’s nothing underneath it – as there is, say, in John Hurt’s portrayal of John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man – so after a while you feel like you’ve seen it all, that essentially he’s doing the same thing over and over again. Presumably Boyle is thinking about Lynch’s film, too, since he draws on Industrial Revolution imagery (a many-wheeled vehicle with men on it chugs across the stage, belching smoke and fire). But since producing live flesh in a laboratory isn’t really the same as making things in a factory, this motif has no compelling connection to the material, the way it does in The Elephant Man, where the enslavement of the factory workers, one of whom winds up on Dr. Treves’s operating table as a result of an industrial accident, is a metaphor for the ugliest side of English existence in the nineteenth century, and it’s linked causally to the dead-ended lives of the poor and the cruelty from which Merrick often suffers.
|Naomie Harris & Jonny Lee Miller|
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.