In Paradise Lost, Lucifer is the beautiful angel, beloved of God, who rebels because he is unwilling to be subjugated by God, and thus rejects God as his creator. Cast out of Heaven, horribly disfigured by the fall, Lucifer is transformed into Satan, who plots constantly against God to regain his former glory. It is perhaps not surprising that the Creature in Frankenstein takes Milton’s poem so much to heart for is he not in a similar position. Created as a new Lucifer, rejected for the horror of his appearance and for what he might represent as a new Adam, the Creature is acutely aware of what he has lost through Frankenstein’s refusal to acknowledge him. Mary Shelley’s novel is a tale of scientific hubris but also a story of filial retribution, and indeed an exploration of a complex metaphysical situation.
How might this then be translated to the stage? Whereas Mary Shelley wraps her story in layers of veiling and mediating narrative — letters addressed to outsiders by secondary characters — with the Creature’s own story hidden in the heart of the novel, revealed only once the audience’s response has been primed, Nick Dear’s version, first performed at the Royal National Theatre in 2011, is uncompromisingly forthright. From the opening moments of the play we are with the Creature as he falls naked out of the artificial womb constructed by Frankenstein and lies twitching on the floor, gasping for life, struggling for control of his limbs. This, of course, is the moment that is so memorably absent from the novel. We may conjecture how the Creature was brought to life but Shelley says only
It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
Thanks to Dear, we share a less mediated account of the Creature’s experiences, from the moment that Frankenstein rushes out of the room. In the novel we follow him. Dear’s play, however, remains with the Creature. We see Frankenstein’s horror at the sight of his own creation now alive, we see his rejection of the Creature, but we also see the Creature stumble out into a world of which he has no cognisance, and we see him learn. If Shelley’s novel was misleadingly titled, the play is even more so. Dear’s sympathy clearly lies with the Creature: to return, momentarily to Milton, he was famously far more interested in Satan, the supposed villain of the piece, than in God, for all that he attempted to suggest otherwise.
In the novel, we receive the Creature’s account of his education, expressed in fairly dry terms, as befits the scholarly man, attempting to deal with a man whom he regards as his intellectual equal, if not inferior. On stage we see Dear’s Creature responding to the world, learning what every sensation means, gradually constructing his own view of the world. But that view depends in part on which version of Frankenstein you happen to see. Danny Boyle, the play’s director, decided to cast two actors as the Creature and Frankenstein, alternating the roles, the actors in question being Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. Miller, insofar as I knew anything about him, I could see as the Creature, but while I could imagine Cumberbatch, whom I’ve seen in a number of films, and indeed on stage, as an icy Frankenstein, I found it very hard to imagine him as the Creature. That was a mistake.
The two Creatures are very different in their conception, though the roots of the two performances are clearly laid out in the short film that accompanies the RNT broadcasts (whether this was detailed in the theatre programme, I don’t know). Cumberbatch took his inspiration from watching stroke sufferers learning to make their bodies and voices work again. Miller, in contrast, drew inspiration from the beahviour of babies and small children. So, on the one hand, you have a body composed of parts from other bodies, and a brain that might come from somewhere else, struggling to relearn the business of human physicality, to gain control of a body that seems to be wilfully intransigent. On the other hand, you have a newborn creature, gradually coming to terms with its body’s physical and mental attributes. And above the stage is a lighting rig that flashes and pulses with light, an external cerebral cortex that reflects the intense mental effort in which the Creature engages.
While I think of Cumberbatch as a ‘dynamic’ and ‘vital’ actor, I don’t necessarily think of him as a physical actor; as the Creature he plays very much against expectation but the performance is extraordinary. His Creature lies on the floor, struggling to control his limbs, which seem to be trying to get away in four different directions simultaneously. One was conscious throughout of the effort that Cumberbatch’s Creature has to exert in order to move and, particularly, in order to speak. Throughout the performance, his Creature struggles slightly to turn thought into speech; the words never do come easily. In moments of stress he also loses control of his limbs again, particularly his arms, with his hands flapping around like awkward birds when he is moved to passion. In the early stages of the play, before he acquires speech, Cumberbatch’s Creature yells in wonder at the things he experiences sun, rain, wind, light and dark, but equally he yells in triumph every time he manages to achieve a physical goal, as though there is some residual memory in the limbs of what they could once do. It is an extraordinary performance.
How might Jonny Lee Miller top that? In terms of sheer physicality of performance he doesn’t. While Cumberbatch’s Creature struggles to exist the womb, Miller’s Creature flops straight out to lie on the ground, moving slightly but not fighting for life in the same way. His Creature’s birth is somehow more accepting of the natural process of expulsion from the body. He lies there, he begins to move, he turns himself over, he starts attempting to move, to stand. His Creature is quieter too, as though its mind is not already overflowing with sense impressions. When Cumberbatch’s Creature gnaws hungrily, at Victor’s journal, which he finds in a coat pocket, as though eating words will bring him knowledge, Miller’s Creature sticks the journal in his mouth like a child with a teething ring. The world is a wonder, at least to begin with. It is when Miller’s Creature is upright, moving, that you begin to notice the strange balletic grace. Cumberbatch’s Creature limps; it is an ill-formed thing. Miller’s Creature moves restlessly, often on the balls of his feet. When he holds a pose he reminds me of an illustration by Blake, The Dance of Albion — quietly, he delights in the way his body moves. He is articulated and articulate too. Speech is less of an effort for him than it is for Cumberbatch’s Creature.
Neither realisation is better than the other; they are complementary interpretations, two framings of what the Creature might be.
It is with the portrayal of Frankenstein that questions about the play begin to arise. Jonny Lee Miller’s performance as Frankenstein seemed to suggest that the role was perhaps underwritten by comparison with that of the Creature. Dear’s words position Frankenstein as an arrogant young man — ‘my mind is superb’, he says twice as he tries to argue with his horrified father that it would be perfectly possible to resurrect Elizabeth after the Creature murders her — yet Miller also imbues the role with a sense of Frankenstein’s emotional immaturity. That arrogance might be indifference but it might as easily be a simple lack of knowledge. This comes most sharply into focus when, having agreed to make a companion for the Creature, he and the Creature debate what love feels like, and Miller’s Frankenstein suddenly confesses that he has no idea what love feels like. For Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein, these words are part of a broader disquisition about knowledge and experience; we suspect he knows about love and has deliberately chosen to turn away — there is a moment with Elizabeth before he goes to Scotland when Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein seems knowing and potentially responsive but forces himself to turn away; Miller simply turned away indifferently. Again, when they parade his new companion before the Creature, Miller’s Frankenstein is pleased with his workmanship while Cumberbatch’s appreciation of his achievement is altogether more sensual (though perhaps with a hint of performance). And in both cases this response seems to be of a piece with their characterisations of the Creature — Cumberbatch’s Creature struggling to regain something lost, Miller’s constantly receiving new information but in this instance perhaps missing out. In the end, though, there is a sense that the role of Frankenstein is underwritten. Of the two actors Cumberbatch seems to make a better attempt at filling out the role but it is Miller who brings us the moments of startling revelation.
As to the rest of the production, Dear has conceived of Elizabeth as an understanding and sympathetic character, wiser by far than her fiance, and the only one to see beyond the Creature’s external appearance. Elizabeth is the motherly representative of common sense but also acutely aware of where the bounds of good taste and responsible behaviour lie. There is no question in her mind that there is only one way to make a human being, and it doesn’t involve reusing body parts. One suspects that her practicality might begin to grate on Frankenstein’s ‘superb’ mind. At the same time, Dear presents her own frustrations with Frankenstein’s behaviour. She wants children and Frankenstein is supposed to be procreating rather than creating. Dear further points this up by a series of exchanges between Elizabeth (played by Naomie Harris) and her maid, Clarice (played by Ella Smith) about the expectations of the wedding night. Is Elizabeth not afraid because she has looked forward to this for so long, or because she is too ignorant to be afraid. It’s never quite made clear. And in the end she loses her virginity not to Frankenstein but to the Creature, who regards himself now to be fully human — which suggests in turn that Frankenstein is not, and now never will be.
De Lacey, the blind man who educates the Creature, is a stern, schoolmasterly father figure, well played by Karl Johnson. Whereas Elizabeth can see through appearances, de Lacey’s blindness obliges him to concentrate on words, but while he can educate the Creature, he cannot see into him. An entirely rational creature, he cannot provide the love and comfort the Creature needs, and indeed sees expressed by de Lacey’s son towards his daughter-in-law. The Creature perceives, correctly, that he cannot reveal himself to them, for all that he does his best to help them. When persuaded to do so by de Lacey, the results are as he feared, and the child breaks out, seeking revenge (another doubling — the play reinforces the idea of doubling in so many ways).
The production itself is a gorgeous spectacle — at times almost too much so. The cortical lightshow is a thing of wonder but I remain less convinced by some of the other effects, most notably the early intrusion of the ‘steampunk train’ into the action. Yes, it is symbolic of the industrial world into which the Creature cannot find his way, but post-Olympic Opening Ceremony one wondered whether it wasn’t a kind of rehearsal for what was to come.
Prehaps, though, the most interesting section of the play is the final part, as the Creature and Frankenstein trek northwards onto the ice. The Creature is here in control, leading Frankenstein onward, yet also needing Frankenstein to push him forward. Frankenstein wants to kill, the Creature wants to die, yet it is the Creature alive who keeps Frankenstein alive, while without Frankenstein, the Creature is uncertain of his own existence. They disappear into the Arctic whiteness and oblivion. Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein is clear about his purpose, Miller’s less so. Of the two, I had the sense that Miller’s Frankenstein recognises the nature of the strange bond between them as love of a sort, while Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein is clear that this needs to end … and yet, he also accedes to the slow death of pursuit.
In all, two fascinating productions, and should the RNT ever release them on DVD, well worth seeing.