What makes humans “human”? What is “alive”? These classic philosophic questions floods the stage in the 2011 theatre adaptation of Frankenstein, scripted by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle for the Royal National Theatre, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating the main roles: The Creature and Victor Frankenstein. The theatre production brings to life the thrilling classic by Mary Shelly, who wrote the novel of the same title during the romantic period in 1818, when she was just 19.
The set is magnificent first and for all. A chandelier made out of thousands of LED lights is installed on the ceiling of the theatre, which sparkles according to the plot development. Its representation of “the spark of life” is a prominent metaphor. Especially during Shelly’s time in history, the discovery and usage of electricity has just begun, and its application in the medical field had received both recognition and criticism (Kelly). This also raises one of the themes in the story, that assembling a human body will all organs vital to living does not mean it is alive; the key is to “humanize” the body.
The Creature is the “key”, therefore. The play focuses on his moral lessons. However, such knowledge cannot be taught directly, but rather acquired through experience. The Creature’s monstrous appearance forced out the most raw, un-censored acts of human behaviour. He got to know humanity through the rejection of the blind man’s family, the violence of the travelers on the road, and the abandonment of Victor Frankenstein his maker. In a way, the Creature is like a man-sized toddler, with a sponge-like brain, relentlessly absorbing information necessary for survival. Most young children learn through imitation, and the Creature as well. He learnt to speak through imitating the blind man’s speeches; his behaviour is also an imitation to how people have treated him. These interactions are vital in determining his future cognition and behavior. The creature’s “beastly” traits: destructiveness, vengefulness and violence, are all acquired through his lessons in the real-world, thus the Creature act as a mirror to the ugliest of humanity.
Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the Creature has such qualities of an infant. In early scenes when the Creature is “born”, his reenactment of being out of the “womb” and exploring the usage of his limbs was extremely believable. It manifests the Creature’s normal adult size, while having the mind and physical abilities that of a baby. Cumberbatch’s Creature also possesses the curiosity of a new-born to its new-world. His discovery of the warm sunshine, the cooling rain, the soft grassland; first time experiencing sensations like hunger and thirst, Cumberbatch’s performance vividly demonstrates a primitive human figure learning the operation of the world.
As much as I have enjoyed the outstanding act by Cumberbatch, I can’t help but question the necessity of its length. It seems to have overpowered Johnny explicit performance of the Doctor Victor Frankenstein. I have not seen version 2 of the play (which casts Cumberbatch as the doctor and Miller as the Creature), therefore, my views could be lopsided. Nevertheless, the spotlight lands on the Creature instead of the Doctor judging from the contrast in their stage time. While giving the actors plenty of time to be the Creature is effective in showing off their abilities, such imbalance in the script undermined the human-perspective in Shelly’s story. Victor Frankenstein represents the darkness in humans, the reason for his creation and his expectations is important to understand the tensions and conflicts between him and the Creature, which the play only included limitedly. The creation of the Creature is seen as the violation of the laws of nature, that the dead cannot be revived; yet human creating another human being is also a symbolic process of reproduction. Victor’s creation goes with nature and also against it. He is delighted with the success of his creation yet threatened and doomed by it. This paradox ironically parallels with our world nowadays. We created nuclear weapons, and we are afraid of it; we invented mobile phones and social media, and we say it disrupt our mental health. The mutual destructiveness of the creator and its creation is perhaps why Frankenstein is also called The Modern Prometheus.
By Sin Wai Ying Rachel
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