Bold New 'Frankenstein' in London
by David Franke: Young
Americans for Foolishness
night before Easter, a good time to contemplate life and death,
I witnessed one of the greatest theatrical experiences of my life
– Nick Dear’s new play Frankenstein as performed at the National
Theatre in London.
One of the
extra benefits of this experience was that I did not have to undergo
all the inconveniences of air travel today. Thanks to modern technology
I was transported to London for two hours from one of the auditoriums
of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. No waiting
for hours in the terminal, no security stupidity to go through,
no cramped seats aboard the plane, no long taxi ride into London.
The only disadvantage was that our local Shakespeareans do not allow
you to take snacks and drinks into the theatre with you; the Brits
are more civilized about that.
that made this time travel possible was a high-definition simulcast.
We were watching the play along with the on-site audience at London’s
National Theatre, only with the best possible angle for every part
of the action. And more comfortable seats, I suspect, from my experiences
with London theatres. A simulcast may not sound very exciting, but
be prepared to change your mind with a National Theatre Live simulcast
of one of its productions to your home town. Crystal-clear visual
quality, 3-D reality without 3-D glasses, and an IMAX-sized screen
put you right in the action. You gasp, laugh, and rise in a standing
ovation at the end along with the audience in London.
that the National Theatre’s production by Danny Boyle is sold out
for its entire run, this is not a bad substitute.
marvels do not end with the final curtain call. Go to www.ntlive.com
with 3 pounds left on your credit card and you can download digital
and printed versions of a detailed program. The digital version
includes the trailer for the play, an interview with Nick Dear,
and a video on "man-made creatures." If you are a monsterphile
like me, your cup runneth over.
That’s a good
question, if – like me – you have shuddered at 1915’s The
Golem, the Jewish predecessor to Mary
Shelley’s monster; if Boris
Karloff has become part of your DNA; and you have sat through
countless inferior productions over the years.
Two very good
One is the
electrifying performances by Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch,
who play the monster and his creator. One of the innovations of
this production is that they change roles every night. I saw Jonny
Lee Miller as the monster, and with his bald head he seems so much
more believable as the monster; I cannot imagine the reverse role-playing.
But if I have an opportunity to see this play again, I’d want to
see Cumberbatch as the monster, and I will be fully prepared for
him to sway me with his also considerable powers on the stage.
is not your parent’s Frankenstein. Nick Dear uses Mary Shelley
as mere background noise – he refers to it as "getting our
parameters from the book" – and plunges ahead with a brutal
and mesmerizing noir version more suitable for a day when
we have seen technology advance to give us both life-enhancing robots
and wars that are devastating on a scale never before possible.
No Victorian subtleties in this Frankenstein.
doing something which hasn’t been done before," explains Dear
in his interview in the digital program, "and that is to tell
the story from the creature’s point of view. We do start with the
moment of creation, but not told from the perspective of the scientist,
which is how it’s usually told; we tell it from the perspective
of the experiment, not the experimenter."
And what a
moment of creation it is.
No words are
spoken during the first fifteen minutes (whatever) of this two-hour
play. Instead we see the newly created monster lying prone on the
floor of the stage. Dr. Frankenstein is nowhere to be seen. Step
by step, the monster writhes in newborn agony, and then learns how
to turn over, crawl on his knees, lift his upper torso, and, finally,
walk and run. It’s not a pretty picture. The monster is bruised
and bloody, and he trembles and swerves in unpredictable ways as
he slowly gains confidence. The performance is so gripping, you
are afraid to take a deep breath for fear of missing something.
doesn’t let up for the rest of the two hours, and there is no intermission
to let you go to the restroom and splash some cold water on your
The next major
theme shows a platonic scene of a house in a clearing in a forest.
A young, newly married couple (we soon learn the wife is pregnant)
take care of the husband’s aged, blind father, then go out to clear
the fields of rocks. The old man plays the guitar, which summons
the monster. A friendship ensues. Because the old man is blind,
he doesn’t fear the monster. He assumes his scars are the result
of war injuries. He himself had to flee his university because of
the war, taking only his most treasured books – Plutarch and such.
He uses these classics to teach our monster how to read and talk.
Okay, so this
part requires a little leap of faith. How can the blind man teach
a monster to read and talk? Well, how many sci-fi or action movies
do not require leaps of faith? Just enjoy this stage, as the monster
becomes more and more eloquent.
But as the
monster learns more, he asks more questions, and part of his learning
is how to love and to kill. At one point he asks the old man, "Why
do we spend so much time trying to help people – and then slaughter
them?" "That is a contradiction," replies
the old man, and the audience erupts in laughter.
I’ll let the
cat out of the bag: The monster is us. We both love and we hate.
We both create and we kill. And we both rebel against our creator.
This is why Frankenstein has endured in our culture. Like Pogo,
we have seen the enemy, and he is us.
The monster searches for his creator, and finds him. He wants answers:
Why did you abandon me? When they first meet, the monster describes
his plight by quoting at length from one of the books he has learned
to read. Dr. Frankenstein gasps in amazement: Paradise
Lost! You have learned to read and recite Paradise Lost?
proud of Adam," the monster replies, "while I was tossed
out [by you] like Satan. Why?"
also has an overriding problem, beyond the fact that he scares the
bejezzus out of everone: He is lonely. He has seen that every creature,
the birds in the sky and the human beings he has watched, has a
partner. He wants Dr. Frankenstein to create another monster – a
wife for him. He strikes a deal with Dr. Frankenstein. Do this and
my wife and I will flee to the wilds of Argentina, never to bother
you again. The doctor creates a lovely mannequin of a wife-creature,
then destroys her before bringing her to life, and pays a terrible,
terrible price for his actions. You don’t mess around with a monster.
Franke [send him mail]
was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s
and 1960s. He is the author of a dozen books, including Safe
Torture Doctor, and America's
© 2011 David Franke
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