(Warning—post contains mention of sexual assault)
Last Monday, I attended a viewing of the filmed recording of the UK National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein. One reason this staging of the play is so well known is because the two stars, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, alternated the roles of Frankenstein and his Creature. The version I saw featured Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein.
In a short film preceding the play, the actors discussed their approaches to the roles. As part of his preparation for the role of the Creature, Cumberbatch studied films of victims of stroke and brain injuries relearning how to speak and move, and incorporated their speech patterns and movements into his performance. After tumbling from a framework pouch onto the stage, an action that resembled a newborn emerging from a womb, he spent the opening minutes of the first scene rolling and stumbling about the stage as he struggled to gain control of his limbs, stand, and walk. It was the start of a physical performance by an actor from whom I wouldn’t have expected such. I imagine that his heavy make-up—the stitches and scarring were painful to behold—covered self-inflicted bruises on more than one occasion.
At this point, I will confess that I have never read the book by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, though I have read synopses and discussions. I also watched Rory Kinnear’s turn as the Creature in the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful,” so an erudite monster with a philosophical bent in place of the monosyllabic Karloff version was no surprise. I attended with a friend who had read the Shelley classic, and she said that the play followed that plot pretty closely. The emphasis was not on the science, but on the impact that the reanimation and its ramifications have on creator, created, and all those unlucky enough to inhabit their spheres.
While there are a few light moments, the overall mood was grim, and the portrayal and treatment of the women bothered me. In the scene where Frankenstein shows the Creature his intended bride, the not-yet-reanimated woman, played by Andreea Paduraru, stands naked from the waist up, mute and by all appearances unaware as Frankenstein and the Creature fondle and marvel over her. Soon after, Frankenstein, fearing the possibility of his creations breeding, slaughters her before she is given any voice. Later, the fate of Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth, played by Naomie Harris, is worse. When she encounters the Creature in the bedroom she and Frankenstein are to share, she shows him kindness, which he repays by assaulting and murdering her. I knew of the murder, but I am pretty sure that assault was not in the book, and I didn’t believe it was necessary at all. It was enough that that Creature murdered someone who accepted him in order to devastate the creator who cruelly wronged him. The rape was gratuitous.
That said, I don’t regret seeing this play. Cumberbatch’s performance was riveting, and the work itself is thought provoking. I have seen Frankenstein described as a cautionary tale, and this version certainly lived up to that label. The staging is imaginative and the supporting performances good. I don’t believe, however, that I would want to see it again.
According to the schedule, the version featuring Miller as the Creature and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein will run today, 29 October. According to one review I read, Miller’s approach stresses the child-like aspects of the Creature’s development, a much different interpretation than that of Cumberbatch.