Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” can often leave us in rhetorical limbo asking who the bigger monster is: The Creature or the Creator. With Danny Boyle’s new stage adaptation penned by Nick Dear at London’s National Theatre, this rhetoric comes alive. “Frankenstein” is being broadcast to theaters so that the world may experience the epic clash of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. These British actors have been given dual lead roles by Boyle, alternating parts as Victor Frankenstein and Creature.
Matthew Schmieding at Starz, LLC and I had the opportunity to see the Theatreworks Broadcast in Colorado Springs. Schmieding witnessed the Saturday, April 2nd performance with Cumberbatch as the creature and Miller as Frankenstein, where I saw the alternate April 3rd performance. We were both blown away, even if detached from the raw energy of theater by a screen 4,732 miles away.
Schmieding eagerly anticipated Boyle’s “Frankenstein”: “To have back to back films nominated for at least 6 academy awards is no fluke, so I was curious to see how his genius mind would translate this iconic work of Mary Shelley to a more intimate play setting,” he said. Ever since Boyle visited the Starz Denver Film Festival, where he was awarded the Mayor’s Career Achievement Award, mention of the play has haunted me as well.
With such a unique casting experience, the National Theatre Live initiative has broadcast multiple separate performances for the first time. “Frankenstein” was broadcast in 36 states in the U.S., all over the world and may still see command performances in its popularity. As Schmieding said, “Even though this was a streaming broadcast from overseas, the screen was placed close enough to the audience to transport us into the theatre…with an almost full crowd, the air was filled with anticipation.”
There is a full feature documentary about the production, giving a proper look at how the play’s vision resurrects Shelley’s literary monster from movie death. A clip from the program was shown during the “Frankenstein” screening. Schmieding noted, “I was specifically interested in the idea Boyle brings up in wanting the monster to have a voice, instead of mostly grunts and being scary.”
Frankenstein vs. The Creature
Part of the appeal in alternating roles is that each actor is united by Boyle’s direction, but embodies a unique voice, or crawl on stage. Schmieding described Cumberbatch’s performance as The Creature: “Severing an umbilical chord, slowly learning how to crawl, standing up and then eventually walking; it was a very raw and emotional performance that showed the childlike-wonder the creature has when he emerges. The curiosity the creature showed was almost animal-like, yet we slowly see him process his surroundings.”
With Jonny Lee Miller as The Creature, the actor said he drew much inspiration from watching his 2-year old child. This was highly evident in his awkward attempts to stand and eager mutterings desiring a voice. Miller’s opening sequence was a physical force of performance art in itself. Yet, the actors bonded in playing The Creature, as Schmieding emphasized, “The humanizing of the creature was truly magical, having the play from his perspective really let you care for his evolution and wonder in learning to speak and read.”
With Miller as Frankenstein, Schmieding said, “He was excellent as the cold, manipulative scientist, hell-bent on keeping his greatest achievement secret. The underlying themes of Man playing God and the existence of the soul are examined. It was great to see the physical standoff between these two actors and the banter they achieve through their slow understanding of each other’s emotions.”
As Victor Frankenstein, Cumberbatch emphasized the sheer awe the scientist felt in his creation; a father both disgusted and overwhelmed by what he brought into the world. Frankenstein constantly moralizes his decision to withhold manufactured companionship from the creature, like a father saying “you don’t know what love is.”
The Stage on Screen
For many, Danny Boyle directing “Frankenstein” will awaken the vigor of theater, while breathing new life into production design and Shelley’s story. Schmieding elaborated, “The enormous stage was encompassed with a dark red light, as it opened on an embryonic sac… an actual birth of the creature. This was the first sign that we were in for something different, and then huge chandeliers blasted the stage with light simulating electricity. It was nice to see a more traditional metaphor than the “it’s alive” line.”
Part of seeing this production through camera choreography gave an interesting perspective in seeing the stage transform. While the scene changes were just as much a part of the show, seeing them by way of overhead cameras and close-ups was thrilling.
Schmieding added, “A revolving stage that changed scenes was frequently a highlight of the production design, where we witnessed simple, yet effective sets that the actors could interact with, but it didn’t have any of the overwhelming special FX I was coming to expect.”
The production design was minimalist, yet it became grandiose in its immensity, lighting and pulsating score from Electronica group, Underworld. With the cameras, broadcast audiences are treated to an intimacy with the actors as well, offering close-ups of facial emotion and the creature’s dialogue soaked in spit. This can come as a downside when the camera closes in on what we are supposed to be focusing on, where the fun of theater is that your eyes can wander the stage.
Elizabeth: Shelley’s Feminist Voice
“Another poignant theme presented by this seminal work was the role of Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, played by Naomie Harris, and how she demanded to get pregnant. Johnny Lee Miller really hammers home his icy heart and obsession with his work, where Elizabeth is constantly complaining about how he never touches her,” said Schmieding.
The role of Elizabeth in Nick Dear’s adaptation further emphasizes the feminist voice Shelley had ingrained in her novel. It also reveals the biographical context of Shelley writing “Frankenstein” after she lost a child still in her womb. In the play, Elizabeth not only yearns for Frankenstein’s child, but wants to join him on his scientific quest. At one point she protests that she may be uneducated, but it is not by choice; it is because she is a woman of her time.
Schmieding notes: “It builds to a climax where she confronts the ultimate question Victor should be asking himself. Why is he creating an abomination of a man and striving to become God-like when he can create a child with his wife… the way nature intended. The grief of Elizabeth is almost too much to bear and it all comes crashing down just as we see a hint of Victor’s kindness shine through.”
Shelley’s novel has always been too much for movies to handle, relying on scare tactics of the monster and never deeply exploring the philosophies within. It is also true that a two hour stage play barely opens the can of worms Shelley baits us with in “Frankenstein.”
Though, Schmieding made an important point in how the play focuses on the creator – creature dynamic: “The play came to a highly emotional and powerful ending; it was amazing to see just how far both The Creature and Victor had progressed over their time on stage. Boyle’s implication in wanting the audience to see the true growth of the creature’s speech, thought process and understanding of his own horrific nature was realized by the end, as I sided with his sadness. The acting was just superb on every level… as we see Victor chase the Creature off into the cold tundra it was a fantastic circle of emotion I won’t soon forget.”
The play swims in a main artery of the novel’s bloodline: creators are inseparable from their creations. This is something Danny Boyle should know all too well as his name is forever branded by, “the director of such films as…” Boyle’s shelf is adorned by an Oscar, but Victor Frankenstein was terrified by what his legacy might have been. In the end he does not see a triumph of science, but an abomination of man.
While people fled in terror from Victor Frankenstein’s Creature, Danny Boyle’s National Theatre production has sold out every show. Schmieding spoke for us both when he said, “It was a spectacular stage performance where both actors went head to head, leaving every emotion and untapped rage out on the stage. If this ever came over to the states, I would be there in a heartbeat.”