Frankenstein in London

Recently by David Franke: Young Americans for Foolishness

The Saturday 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.

The "creature" 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.

Considering that the National Theatre's production by Danny Boyle is sold out for its entire run, this is not a bad substitute.

The technological marvels do not end with the final curtain call. Go to 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.

Why another "Frankenstein"?

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 answers:

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.

Second, this 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.

"We're 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.

The pressure 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 face.

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.

Fast-forward. 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?

"God was proud of Adam," the monster replies, "while I was tossed out [by you] like Satan. Why?"