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The National Theatre’s Frankenstein: a Play of Human Cruelty

As Benedict Cumberbatch said when interviewed, “this production is creature-centric”. By consequence, Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein is novel-centric too, retaining all of the subtlety and genius of Mary Shelley’s gothic classic. 

Frankenstein’s creature (played by Cumberbatch) is born into the warm womb of bright red stage lighting. His limbs protrude and rip through a veined membrane. When he emerges he seems to exist in a troublingly liminal state between infant and adult, yet simultaneously neither. If I’m completely honest, for all I enjoyed Sherlock, I normally find Cumberbatch rather irritating, but his performance in this show is faultless, somehow distorting his body into something adjacent to what one might consider to be human. The first scene, in which he torturously learns to walk, is hard to watch. He aligns unsynchronised limbs, seemingly pressed down upon by his own body. Crucially, there is a terrible loneliness in these first moments, witnessed only by a flash of rippling lightning in the theatre’s canopy, his small contorting body swamped by the enormous barren stage. Then, enters Victor Frankenstein (Jonny Lee Miller) who is repulsed by the sight of his creation and flees, leaving his creature alone once more. A lot of the time, the play is really about loneliness. About the dehumanising cruelty and evil which is born out of isolation, about how love, and the hope that one will be loved in the future, can be redemptive. 

“I live with my son. You look after them when they’re little, they look after you when you’re old.” De Lacey, a gentle old man, kindly tells the creature. The remainder of the play explains what can happen when there’s no one to look after you at all. 

The production centres around a series of abandonments, not just of the creature but of the smaller roles too, of Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth, of his little brother William. After the creature’s birth, the scene changes to a rather random steam-punk musical interlude, filling in what Shelley euphemistically glossed as “the unkindness of men”. I think perhaps this is the only discordant part of the show, and I worry momentarily that the next two hours will be a re-hashing of Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. Thankfully, I was quite wrong. The production is gripping, retaining all the excitement of Shelley’s proto-sci-fi novel whilst also navigating the story with originality and sensitively.

I remember last Halloween when my sister told me she was dressing up as Frankenstein, and obnoxiously I corrected her: “Actually, that’s Frankenstein’s creature, Frankenstein is the scientist”. Aside from the anecdote illustrating how insufferable English Literature students can be, there is something important in the common misconception that muddies together the two characters of Shelley’s novel. Boyle’s production certainly draws this out, where Cumberbatch and Miller alternate in playing creature and creator, a directorial decision that highlights the deliberate parallels between the decline of both characters in the novel. Human thus becomes an amorphous concept with collapsing boundaries, something dislocated from simple aesthetic assumptions. 

Gently, gently, the production creates empathy for the increasingly human creature, shows his awe and goodness as he delights at the sight of the moon, at the sound of early bird song. 

Nature vs. Nurture? The argument is certainly made strongly for the latter. Shelley ascribed to a Lockean ‘tabula rasa’ understanding of human nature. Her creature is taught kindness and intellect by De Lacey, a blind old man who inhabits a cottage in the woods. On stage, the seasons change before us, snow falls, and spring returns. De Lacey and the creature walk at dusk and look up at the moon. The creature describes the sight: “The moon is solitary, sad. Like me. Solitary, like me” and in his broken speech is a humble poetry equally as beautiful as the Milton that he has been taught to recite. But if kindness and generosity are attributes which are taught, the show makes no mistake that spite, violence are deceit are acquired no differently.

The show is stunning because of its ability to build dualities of good and evil, only to instantly collapse them again. The creature is shown little kindness by the world, he is neglected, his hopes endlessly dashed but certainly, there is no Jobe-like strength in all his desolation. “I am good at the art of assimilation” he tells Victor’s fiancée Elizabeth towards the end of the play before he assaults and murders her. Sure, his hubristic creator and bigoted society have cruel to him, but he absorbs cruelty like a sponge. These shifting lines of sympathy are expertly juggled by Cumberbatch, who seems able to repulse, terrify, and endear the audience with ease in the arc of a few lines.

Victor Frankenstein is complicatedly dislikeable. He is mean-spirited, dismissive of his loving fiancé, filled with an Enlightenment-esque need to transcend, to make his mark in scientific history by “breathing the breath of God”. He frequently echoes the line (note the heavily phallic imagery!) “I wish to penetrate Nature”. Frankenstein ultimately wishes to be worshipped as a god, as a ‘creator’, as natural paternity seems insufficient to fulfill the arrogance of his ambition. As Elizabeth points out “If you wanted to create life, why did you not give me a child?”. Ultimately he fails as a parent; entirely unable to care for the creature he abandons it in fear, dismissing the person he has made “a great heap of nothing”. But here too the production doesn’t leave us with easy moral binaries. For all his impassive cruelty, there’s a terrible tragedy in watching Frankenstein’s loneliness. It is the creature that is exiled by society and unable to form relationships because of his external appearance; but Victor exiles himself too, unable to love anyone but himself out of what feels like a paralysing fear of the unscientific chaos of love and life. In the final scene Victor, on the brink of death, utters the words “I don’t know what love is”, and it is the Creature who offers “I will teach you”, and again the boundary struck between human and monster is once more inverted. 

 “Why did you create me?” 

“To prove I can”

“So you make sport of my life?”

“For the sake of science!”

Subtly, parallels are struck to contemporary debates about the ethics of medical genetical experimentation, about individuals experiencing isolation from society, about a seemingly inescapable aesthetic obsession. When the creature, having learnt the idea from the men around him says “I have a right to a female” I wonder if playwright Nick Dear also thought of an emerging incel culture when he wrote the line. Boyle’s costumes code for the late Romantic period in which the novel is set, but no modernisation is necessary to make this a play that speaks directly to a 21st-century audience. 

Gaia Clark Nevola

Gaia Clark Nevola (she/ her) is the Senior Editor for Culture at The Oxford Blue. She is in her second year studying English at St. Catherine's College where she is also LGBTQ+ welfare rep. Gaia enjoys creative writing, doing costumes for student theatre and telling people that she's actually half Italian, as though that constitutes having a personality.