The modern Prometheus

Frankenstein at work in his laboratory, from page 7 of Frankenstein, 1922, Cornhill Publishing Co. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frankenstein,_pg_7.jpg)

Frankenstein at work in his laboratory, from page 7 of Frankenstein, 1922, Cornhill Publishing Co. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frankenstein,_pg_7.jpg)

My wife and I went to see one of the final final encore big screen presentations of the 2011 National Theatre Live production of Frankenstein. We saw version “A” with Jonny Lee Miller in the role of Dr. Frankenstein and Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of his creation.

Even though it was presented in a movie theater rather than seeing it live in London, it was simply one of the most beautiful and nearly perfect stage productions I have ever seen.

Trying to describe the show is difficult without giving too much away. I’m sure you are familiar with the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and his creation, in some form or another.

Of course, there is the famous 1931 silent film staring Boris Karloff as The Creature. This, in particular, spawned multitude of derivative versions ever since and cemented the The Creature in our minds as a bumbling, violent, and non-speaking thing. Essentially, an automaton gone rogue and bent on destruction. Maybe even a scientific golem, if you will. And, of course, there is the age-old story of Prometheus.

And then, maybe one of the best, is actually the comical Young Frankenstein from the genius of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder with Peter Boyle as The Monster (rather than The Creature).

But have you ever read the original novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley?

First published in 1818 anonymously (and in serial as most things were at that time) and titled Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, it was perhaps the first example of what we now call hard sci-fi. In other words, used scientific ideas current to the time to investigate questions of the human condition.

Or, at least, that’s my definition of it. I’m sure others out there would disagree.

But the fact is clear that it differed from other “science fiction” literature of the time because they contained fantastical items and events which were passed off as science (what would be more aptly classified as “fantasy” today) while Shelley’s story has a man, shown to be greatly flawed, choose to use his intellect and science.

And, of course, it goes greatly awry.

The story was the outcome of a getaway retreat Mary and her husband, the famous poet, Percy Byshee Shelley, spent in Geneva (which became a location in the novel). During the retreat, everyone was challenged to write a short horror story to share, as sort of a competition. Of the group, her story is the only one I’m aware to live on to publication and into infamy.

So, with the immense number of times this has been done and redone on screen and stage, what makes this version by London’s National Theatre so great?

Taking away things like the superb and inventive set design, the fantastic acting, and the score by Underworld, the true depth lies first in Nick Dear’s script which chooses from Shelley’s many messages to find those most relevant to today.

Then it’s on to Danny Boyle (yes, that Danny Boyle) to direct and have the inspiration of having the two main stars – Johnny Lee Miller (Trainspotting and CBS’s Elementary) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness and BBC’s Sherlock) – swap roles throughout the run of the show. Yes, that’s right, in one version (A), Miller is The Creature and Cumberbatch is Dr. Frankenstein. In version B, they swap.

My wife and I saw version A, which was perhaps the better of the two for us to see. We both could easily imagine Cumberbatch, with his ability to play lack of emotion and extreme logic, as Dr. Frankenstein and to see Miller, with his emotion and action, as The Creature. So seeing them in the opposite roles added more of a challenge to our imagination.

And they more than met our expectations.

The show opens as if it were a performance art piece commenting on the timelessness of birth and, perhaps, even trying to get a small laugh at the idea of a grown man having shear childlike joy at the sight of his first sunrise and standing in the rain, then it quickly but nearly seamlessly moved into the story as The Creature struggles with the hatred he receives from everyone except a blind old man, and then on from there to the inevitable conclusion.

Nick Dear (or maybe it’s Boyle, but I haven’t seen the script) skipped passed the origin stories of Dr. Frankenstein’s struggle to actually create The Creature, which was a wise choice. There is more than enough of the story to show Victor’s egotism and beginning with the birth created a symmetry to the end of the story which would’ve been felt lacking in the production. This bypasses the question of whether The Creature is destined to be evil because his body parts came from the corpses of hanged men, and allows it to better question what evil really is.

I almost cried at the very beginning and did later on. More than once. And, despite the horror of the story and the sad commentary it is on Shelley’s view of humanities direction, it still contains scenes of immense beauty.

I tell you all this to encourage you to find (if you can) an encore showing in your area. To my great sorrow, this has not been – and looks to never be – released on DVD for home viewing, though you can get both the Nick Dear script and the Underworld soundtrack.

After the enjoyment we had with this, we’ve already purchased tickets to a showing of National Theatre Live’s production of Coriolanus in early March.

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