Can you believe that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus recently celebrated its 200th birthday? To commemorate the occasion, IFC Center has been showing National Theatre Live: Frankenstein, and today, I finally had enough time and energy to catch a screening.
The big gimmick of this Danny Boyle-helmed stage production is that stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller would swap roles, and while I’d love to see the version featuring Cumberbatch as The Creature for the sake of comparison, the play itself excels on its own merits, distilling the source material down to its essential themes. Writer Nick Dear even corrects a grave injustice by allowing the narrative to unfold almost entirely from The Creature’s perspective (the novel’s epistolary structure filtered his side of the story through Victor’s biased point-of-view), emphasizing the fact that he was “born" innocent—a blank slate with infinite potential—before tragically being corrupted by mankind’s cruelty and hatred. In the beautifully expressionistic sequence that opens the show, he emerges into a world of chaos, assaulted by senses and sensations far beyond his comprehension. Miller brilliantly enacts his gradual transformation in response to his surroundings: he begins as a frightened child trapped in the body of a hideously-deformed adult, at first merely mimicking the behavior of the few humans he encounters, then slowly learning, grasping, assimilating, until he eventually attains self-awareness. Unfortunately, the only lesson he learns from his creator—who is ignorant and small-minded, despite his intelligence and ambition—is that if he wishes to truly be “alive,” he must become as vengeful and destructive as his tormentors.
It’s an illuminating reinterpretation of a classic tale, making no excuses for its protagonist’s monstrous actions while still arguing that they could easily have been prevented by a little kindness and compassion.
[Originally written November 24, 2018.]