Adapted by Nick Dear from the novel by Mary Shelley
Organised by the National Theatre
Broadcast to cinemas by National Theatre Live
With the term 'Frankenstein' having become synonymous with 'mad scientists' who 'play God', and its status as the go-to criticism against any new technology that threatens to interfere with what is deemed 'natural', Shelley's story is as relevant today as ever it was. Indeed, what was once considered so morally abhorrent that it formed the fabric of horror has, with recombinant DNA, IVF, organ donation and embryonic stem cells to name but a few, been realised today several times over.
The play is a faithful retelling of this infamous cautionary tale - the key departure being that it is told from the perspective of the Creature, rather than of his Promethean creator, and through this, plus some other pieces of clever restructuring, Shelley's original messages shine.
The Creature: 'You make sport with my life.'
Frankenstein: 'In the cause of science.'
Though tragically flawed by his ambition, Shelley's Frankenstein is, at heart, compassionate and kind. Dear remoulds him: exaggerating his scientific zeal to the absurd while all-but stripping him of any morality. Muting Frankenstein's humanity distils the essence of the scientist as cold and unfeeling, and disconnected from society. Though the Creature is hideously deformed, and culpable of the most heinous of crimes, we can always identify with him. We cannot with Frankenstein - his hubris makes him appear mutilated and grotesque, and we feel uncomfortable watching his inability to connect with the love of those around him. By building Frankenstein in this way Dear creates a monster, and amplifies Shelley's original caution: that scientific endeavour divorced from its human, social context, has the potential to become monstrous.
The Creature: 'Come Scientist: destroy me! Destroy your creation! Come!'
Benevolent throughout, the Creature has by the final scene become psychopathic and unrecognisable in his cruelty, and we can no longer relate to him - he has finally become a monster. But he explains that he has learnt the ways of men: 'how to ruin, how to hate, how to debase, how to humiliate... [and] how to lie'. And we can attest: we have watched how, seeking friendship and love, he has been rejected by all he meets and, desperate to learn how to become part of society, how the teachings of men have systematically disfigured him into the demon he has become.
The transformation is so marked as to be terrifying, and forces us to question how we approach those who do not conform to our social norms. But the message is deeper in today's context when, with the human genome mapped, the $1,000 genome around the corner and personalised medicine high on the political agenda we are, perhaps more than ever, guilty of blaming our genes for our behavioural and psychological, as well as our physical traits. Today's on-going 'nature versus nurture' debate is foreshadowed in the original, but takes centre stage in Dear's Frankenstein, cautioning us to reconsider the balance between genes and the environment when considering what makes us human.
The staging of Frankenstein is basic but effective - and at times, sensational. Three-thousand tungsten bulbs hang from the ceiling to give an industrial glow to the action beneath; blazing into brilliant white light when the Creature first opens his eyes. Similarly, the score is terrific at capturing both the cold, unyielding march of industry and the juggernaut of scientific endeavour, and the naïve innocence of man corrupted by the desperation of love. (Incidentally, director Danny Boyle teamed up with previous collaborators Underworld to produce the soundtrack; a pairing revived for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics).
My only criticism would be that the dialogue which, at its best is sublime, has the tendency to become weak and lazy, and is let down further by mediocre secondary performances and some frankly odd casting. The lead actors more than compensate, however, and this is really only a small gripe with an otherwise outstanding production that is wonderfully successful at bringing Shelley's evocative and important story alive.