Monday, July 2, 2012

Birthing Pains: Danny Boyle's Frankenstein

Back on April 4, 2011, David Churchill reviewed the National Theatre's production of 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
Directors say all kinds of things, of course; we judge them on what they put on stage or film, not on how they explicate it. (Dear doesn’t omit Elizabeth’s objection in his dramatization.) And I wish I could join in the general enthusiasm for this production of Frankenstein. It’s magnificently designed by Mark Tildesley, who makes stunning use of the immense Olivier Theatre space and, inevitably, of the “drum,” the elevator revolve that rises up out of the bowels of the stage. It contains some fine images: the burning of the blind man De Lacey’s house (the Creature’s revenge when De Lacey’s son and daughter-in-law cast him out after De Lacey, not knowing he’s a monster, has befriended and educated him), the father and son grave diggers robbing a coffin to furnish human parts for Frankenstein’s laboratory, and – a motif – the chandelier above the stage illuminating gradually, a symbol of the light of understanding and knowledge as well as the power of and desire for love. But for all the striking visuals and the impressive stagecraft, the production has the dull, paralyzed feel of lumpen literary adaptation. The actors seem to be reciting passages from the book (even when they may not literally be doing so). And most of the acting is dreary – the over-exuberant presentational style wears you down.

Benedict Cumberbatch & Naomie Harris
The night I saw the show, Miller played the Creature and Cumberbatch was Frankenstein. Surprisingly, Cumberbatch, who’s superb in the title role of the English TV series Sherlock, wasn’t very good, but I admired Miller’s physical and vocal work, which was very clear and specific. The play begins with the birthing of the Creature, out of an egg-like tent in the center of a scarlet-lit stage (the lighting is by Bruno Poet), and at first he’s like a fish trying out its gills. He explores his body, then pulls himself to a standing position and finally figures out how to walk, accompanying his efforts with a grunts, laughs and other sounds. It’s fascinating to watch him work through basic problems like how to deal with fire and how to eat hot food without burning himself. At first, before the Creature conquers language, we can’t comprehend what he’s saying, but once he does the weird rhythms – the delay while he spits out his words as if he were giving birth to every phrase – and the way his tongue rolls around his mouth are amusing and almost hypnotic.

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
Except for Miller, the only actor who breaks through the constraints of the script (and, presumably, the direction) is Karl Johnson as De Lacey. The casting is color-blind, which wouldn’t be a problem if the actors who play Frankenstein’s father (George Harris) and Elizabeth (Naomie Harris) weren’t so bad, but two terrible performances by black actors in traditionally white parts feels condescending and makes you uncomfortable. Dear and Boyle hew fairly close to the book, though there’s one concession to a modern-day audience that is a real mistake, and it seems to throw off the end of the play. When Frankenstein reneges on his promise to give the lonely Creature a mate, constructing her but then destroying her in horror over the thought of a race of such monsters, the Creature’s revenge on his master is to kill Elizabeth on their wedding night. In the play, he rapes her first and cries out, “Now I am a man!” during orgasm. At that point, the adaptation becomes murky: when Victor follows the Creature into the arctic wastes so they can die together, he admits that he doesn’t know what love is and the Creature assures him, “I can show you.” What is Dear trying to get at here – that the Creature’s loneliness is that of an abandoned child who just wants to shower love on his father?

 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 ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


  1. Please, you even stole a fan-made graphic design, which combined both Cumberbatch's Frankenstein and Creature.

    Completely disagree with your view, especially Miller's performance. His Creature was one-note in terms of vocal, facial and physical expressions and turned out to be child-like throughout, which created a plot hole in connection with the Creature's ability to commit the premeditated murder; on the other hand, there were a lot of nuances in Cumberbatch's performances as Frankenstein.

    1. Anonymous - Our apologies for the unintentional theft of the fan-made graphic design. We've replaced it. Our regular webmaster is on holiday so the graphics were posted by someone less aware of what he was doing. As well, thanks for your opinions on the production. Our critic, of course, stands by his views. While we always appreciate comments on the site, just a reminder that we also put our names on all of our critical posts. So we kindly encourage those who wish to comment on Critics at Large to show the same consideration and be equally candid by using their own names.

    2. Got to give you that admitting using the fan-made graphic design was inappropriate; usually the webmaster would just ignore such comments. As for my identity, I don't have google, LJ or any other accounts listed on your options of logging-in; even if I left my name here, you won't be able to verify the authenticity, will you? Or would you really expect people to publicly leave their emails in the comments for your verification? I didn't just leave a comment without reasoning; that showed the sincerity to my comment and the writer.