Page URL:

Theatre Review: Frankenstein

20 August 2012
Appeared in BioNews 669


Adapted by Nick Dear from the novel by Mary Shelley

Organised by the National Theatre

Broadcast to cinemas by National Theatre Live

'Frankenstein', adapted by Nick Dear from the novel by Mary Shelley

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.

1) Dear, N., (2011) Frankenstein, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
London: Faber and Faber Ltd |  26 May 2022
14 February 2011 - by Dr Rachael Panizzo 
The creation of human life through artificial means is often portrayed as an inherently dangerous and unnatural process, where the product of any such attempt is assumed to be somehow inferior and lacking in humanity. This is a recurrent idea that looms over contemporary debate surrounding many scientific advances and technologies in biology, from reproductive cloning to embryonic stem cell (ESC) research, IVF and human genetics....
22 March 2010 - by Dr Marianne Kennedy 
My first impression of this book was that the title smacks of a dull read. On the contrary, however, this book provides a stimulating awakening into one of the challenges facing science writing today, namely the use of metaphor: its purpose in communication and consequences for science and public understanding...
28 April 2008 - by Fiona Fox 
Should scientists enter the media fray on the most controversial aspects of stem cell research when the row is clearly about much more than the science? This is a question that many in the scientific community have raised over the past year in relation to the furore over human-animal hybrid...
8 November 1999 - by BioNews 
This has not been a good year for life-scientists. Anti-GM activists dressed as genetically engineered monsters took part in Halloween celebrations in New York and Washington D.C. to protest against what they call 'Frankenscience'. The Campaign for Responsible Transplantation were out in force on the streets of New York's Greenwich...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.