Pandemonium: National Theatre's Frankenstein (NTLive)

We all know Frankenstein’s monster – the block head, the shock of dark hair on its flat top, the bolts in the neck, the ill-fitting clothes, the immense iron shoe-clad feet, the lumbering gait, arms outstretched. We erroneously call this monstrosity ‘Frankenstein,’ not realising that is actually the name of the scientist who created him; the creature is, in fact, unnamed, although as this production illustrates so clearly, both creature and scientist are two halves of one being – creator and created – thus the title of Frankenstein being applicable to both man and creature. But underneath the myth and horror-appropriation of the story is Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, and this production – created for London’s National Theatre in 2011 – springs forth from Shelley’s novel into full-blooded life, first upon the stage and now upon cinema screens as part of the popular National Theatre Live program.
First published in January 1818 when Mary Shelley was twenty years old and pregnant herself, the novel is often credited as the first work of science-fiction. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the age of science was beginning – surgeons and anatomists were plumbing the human body for its secrets and workings, the discovery of electricity was almost visible on the horizon, and the modern world was about to explode in all its hulking smoking burning glory into full being through the Industrial Revolution. There was much less of a distinction between art and science as we know them today, and for many writers and thinkers of the time, the two were intertwined. At the heart of Shelley’s Frankenstein is not Hollywood’s idea of horror, but a very morbid and human fear of being born.

All of these concepts are captured in Danny Boyle and Nick Dear’s version for the National Theatre. Boyle, a film director best known for Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, and 28 Days Later, returned to working in the theatre after fifteen years, and did so amidst preparations for the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. If you look at the opening ceremony and this Frankenstein, there is a large amount of cross-pollination of ideas, sentiments, and technical wizardry, and this is partly due to an incredibly thorough and detailed book used by Boyle called Pandemonium: The Coming of the Machine, which documents the Industrial Revolution over the course of two hundred odd years. The connective tissue which unites Frankenstein and the opening ceremony is fragile but strong, and the scale on which the two pieces unfolds is mesmerising – one is an intimate, more crucible-like evocation of the other, whereby the larger does not sacrifice any of the humanity or theatrical ingenuity of the smaller.
Staged in the Olivier theatre at the National Theatre, Frankenstein unfolds on a scale we can only dream of in Australia, as did the RSC’s Richard II last year. A high curved wall runs around the back of the stage, with concealed doors and panels set within it; a revolve sits centrestage, and the stage itself extends some way into the audience. Above the stage, a bank of thousands of naked lightbulbs hang, flickering ominously with an electrical hum, the very lifeforce which brings forth our wildest dreams. Drawing on the skills of the creative team who would go on to create the opening ceremony with him – Mark Tildesley (set), Suttirat Larlarb (costume), Toby Sedgwick (movement), Underworld (music and sound design) – Boyle fashions a world where ideas of science, industrialisation, humanity and power sit alongside each other as pebbles do a beach. There is a fragility here, a sparseness which foregrounds the humanness of the story, of the production, for even though it unfolds across a large canvas, the story is essentially that of the two men – Victor Frankenstein, and his creation – and how they pursue each other endlessly, to their eventual ends. Elements fly in from above (the farmers’ cottage) or rise from below (the crofters’ hut in the Orkneys, Elizabeth’s bedroom), and there is a circular device used right from the first moments of the creature in a body sac, like a womb, pushing out, born.
The role of Frankenstein and the creature alternates in performance between Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (both of whom, incidentally, have played Sherlock Holmes on television). In this performance, Miller played the Creature, while Cumberbatch played the scientist. Usually told as the story of a man hunting the secrets of life, in Nick Dear’s adaptation, the point of view of the story is flipped, so we see the Creature’s point of view, see how he is affected by Frankenstein’s meddling and creating. As the Creature, Miller brings an almost infant-like physicality to the role, a youthfulness and wide-eyed wonder which belie his physically-mature appearance. In interviews for the production, Miller says how he drew upon his two year old son’s behaviour, the experiences of “a pre-verbal child,” and this shows. Neither actor rehearsed either part in isolation, so there was a cross-flow of ideas from one to the other, to make the roles as symbiotic and dynamic as possible; for his research for the Creature, Cumberbatch drew upon the experiences and physicalities of recovering stroke victims, the way they have to relearn the vocabularies of speech, coordination and movement, and these ideas feed into the Creature’s physicality too. It’s a physically demanding performance for either actor, and it tremendously thrilling to watch. As the scientist, Cumberbatch brought his trademark fierce intelligence to bear and his Frankenstein is, at times, a close cousin to his Sherlock, as I suppose was to be expected. But as the Creature makes his request, his demand, of the scientist, both their fates are instantly intertwined, for better or worse, and neither is whole without the other. It is, in a way, a terribly affecting tale of morality, love and humanity.
The rest of the cast appear as needed, almost as ancillary characters, though two perhaps stand out. De Lacey, the blind old man who teaches the Creature to read and write (via Milton’s Paradise Lost), treats him with a dignity and respect which should be afforded to every human; being blind, he of course cannot see the Creature’s disfigurement except with his hands, and even then he does not shy or run from him, but remarks about how he too has been in the wars. The other character who does not shy from the Creature is Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s fiancée, and as played by Naomie Harris, there is a fragile and desperate want to help this being – albeit all-too-briefly – who has been mistreated by her fiancée. Both De Lacey and Elizabeth have, at the core of their characters, a compassion and sympathy which we are encouraged to share; the Creature is only seen as a monster because of what has been done to him was monstrous, and thus it is the only way he knows how to be, until he meets De Lacey. Through language, the Creature discovers the idea of ‘self,’ of loneliness, of being, of humanity, the lack of having a name; he feels the pain of being monstrous and the need for love, forgiveness, wholeness, belonging. It is a harrowing piece of theatre, not least for its implications – perhaps, as Boyle indicates, the Arctic wasteland the two men find themselves in at the end is synonymous with “the wilderness that science is wandering off into. What’s it going to find? It’s not interested in worshipping any more. It’s just interested in discovering.”
The play, as with Shelley’s book, is full of ideas and implications. While the experience of seeing it in a cinema (years later as the case may be) does not compare with being in the same room, it perhaps gains an intimacy which you cannot capture in a theatre, the intimacy of the cinematic close-up. Here, you can see the anguish and pain and feeling on their faces in incredible detail, you feel the Creature’s plight more than you perhaps might in a theatre. As the play ends, and both men walk into the brightness of their fate, the Creature drawing Frankenstein further on and further up into the Arctic wasteland, there’s a stunned kind of silence which descends throughout the theatre. A silence which comes from the magnitude of wonder at mankind’s reach, grasp and ceaseless striving for perfection.

In Wonder all Philosophy began: in Wonder it ends, and admiration fill up the interspace. But the first Wonder is the Offspring of Ignorance; the last is the Parent of Adoration.
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Theatre playlist: 76. Industrial Revolution, Underworld

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