“Frankenstein” – swapping places with the monster

Frankenstein Poster

I spent an unforgettable evening last week watching National Theatre’s Frankenstein online, with Benedict Cumberbatch. Opposite him, Jonny Lee Miller embodied the tormented creature in a very expressive and touching manner. Their acting, under the guidance of director Danny Boyle, portrayed a world where neither geniality, nor deformity have a place. Creature* and creator both share the same madness and the same fate, in the mirror.

Marry Shelley’s novel remains one of the big classical titles which I, sadly, haven’t read yet. With that in mind, the mirroring between creator and creature stood out the most for me in the play. Both actors finely portray their characters as equally tormented by that very precious something they chase, but never quite possess.

*You will see I avoid calling the creature a monster – physical deformity and mental disability hardly makes any human being into one. 

The essence of Frankenstein’s tragedy, as seen on stage at the National Theatre

Dr. Frankenstein grasps those secrets of nature he has thirsted for all his life. Once he achieves his overly ambitious goal, the complexity of the creator’s responsibility crushes him. He turns from creator into destroyer, convinced he needs to kill his creation. The creature only but mirrors his maker, in a childish, amoral way, and how other people treated him.

“What are you good at?”

“I am good at the art of assimilation. I have watched and listened and learnt. At first I knew nothing at all. But I studied the ways of men and slowly I learnt how to ruin, how to hate, how to humiliate.”

The creature’s words, so brilliantly rendered by Jonny Lee Miller, encapsulate the essence of his tragedy, echoing that of his master. One learns best from the way they are treated. When the world beats you down again and again, what is there left other than to give up or hit back? Those pushed to the outskirts of life just fight for survival, even if that means hurting others. And this continues to be extremely relevant to the world we live in, whether we think of refuges, immigrants, areas continuously battered by war.

Then Dr. Frankenstein himself embodies the genius who falls short of social norms. As his fiancé says, in a very memorable dialogue between them, creating life used to be the prerogative of married couples. In his scientific quest, he brakes religious and social norms, which don’t necessarily have to do with morality. Since Victorian times, science discovered cloning and it strives towards the creation of AI. Yet, in that age, people did not understand Frankenstein’s views or goals, so he too fell outside the society he lived in.

This stayed with me as the essence of the whole theatre production.

A short political insert

The National Theatre play also triggered thoughts around political concerns. The big context today places individuals and whole countries on the outskirts of the globalised world we live in. We see marginalised countries and people who live in them treated as second-hand humans, over and over again.

I once watched a short video of presumably an Isis fighter online. Tears in his eyes, this man said something along the lines:

“The Americans have bombarded us, they killed our wives and children, killed our families. Now we will do the same to them, so they suffer like we did.”

Nothing justifies murder or terrorism. The murders which the creature in the play commits remain horrifying. However, understanding how circumstances push people or even nations beyond this point of no return might prove beneficial on the long run. Consider what Ishiguro Kazuo also paints in his book “The Remains of the Day”. By the time anybody realised what effect the restrictions imposed on Germany had, the situation had long escalated. Would World War II have happened without such fertile ground for the Nazi party to grow in?

A slightly autistic genius and an amoral creature who yearns to belong

After talking about how I perceived the stage production as a whole, I will point out what I most enjoyed in the play.

I thoroughly appreciated the opportunity to see Benedict Cumberbatch, as an actor I love. He gave his Dr. Frankenstein that ardent expression whenever he talked about his scientific goals and obsessions. The awkwardness experienced in relating to other people completed the portrayal of a tragical character. I caught a slightly autistic thread in the behaviour of his Frankenstein, which I thought worked well. Obsession over one subject, failure of grasping other’s emotions and thoughts, reluctance towards physical closeness, looking at his fiancé’s beauty as if she were a “specimen” fit the autistic genius.

While I loved watching him on stage, his acting filled expectations, but did not surprise me in any way.

The discovery of Jonny Lee Miller

Through this play I discovered Jonny Lee Miller. I knew virtually nothing about him before watching this version of Frankenstein. And I surely would not have remembered in a thousand years that he played Sick Boy in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting.

Frankenstein Jonny Lee Miller

Miller’s performance of the creature felt very touching in the flawless expressiveness he put in the character. Every gesture, every facial expression, voice intonation, body posture and movement fell into place. The creature completely captivated me, I empathised with him throughout. His horrifying acts of killing people dear to his creator only triggered deep sadness.

I saw him as a young, intelligent, but amoral being. Due to his impairments, he did not develop full capacity of understanding certain grave, difficult matters.

In a way, he reminded me of some of the disabled people I worked with in the social care sector. Jonny Lee Miller’s performance brilliantly illustrates the same yearning to belong and to be loved, doubled by fear of rejection and abuse. The hilarious scene, where the creature answers with “piss off! bugger off!” to indicate he wanted the old man to play his guitar, brought back certain memories. Some people with learning difficulties, mostly nonverbal, whom I supported, could only say couple of swear words. It is deeply saddening to think that that was what they heard most in their lives.

How the director’s touch moves the world

National Theatre’s Frankenstein production represented the top play I’ve seen in the UK. Back in Romania, I used to report on theatre as a journalist for two major quality newspapers in Bucharest. My job entailed going to the theatre, writing reviews, interviewing actors and directors.

In this play, I thoroughly appreciated how director Danny Boyle painted the world of Frankenstein. Starting with the solitary scene of the creature being born, he set the tone for the tragedy to follow. The next scene, with its steampunk accents, the hubbub of the city streets, emphasised the clash between personal suffering and a noisy, indifferent society.

The use of hundreds of ceiling lights in an otherwise minimalist, versatile, contemporary decor added to the dramatic nature of the production. Danny Boyle created very compelling scenes with all the elements available to him. It was a pleasure to watch this sample of his theatre work.

At the same time, nothing I’ve seen so far surpasses the work of Romanian theatre director Radu Afrim. On my recent trip to Bucharest, I watched his play The Forest of the Hanged, an adaptation of a Romanian classical novel. Afrim made full use of his mastery of different media on stage to create visually and emotionally striking scenes. He also turned a story from World War I into a contemporary debate about where the world is heading. While I went tearful watching Frankenstein and empathised with the characters, I sobbed at Afrim’s play.

I will soon publish a review of it too. Sadly, that production is not available in English.

Meanwhile, I thoroughly recommend watching Frankenstein if you haven’t done so yet. First staged in 2011, it remains an exquisite piece of theatre work.


  • John Mills May 11, 2020 at 10:47 pm Reply

    I thoroughly enjoyed this review. In some ways Frankenstein is a treatise on the dangers of man interfering in things he doesn’t understand and the consequences of new science. Galvanisation, electro-zinc plating is the idea behind the “Shocking” of the creature into life but sadly Frankenstein, the creator does not live up to his responsibilities. Is Shelley having a go at religion here? There is also the debate about madness. Every time the creature makes an appearance he does so as a full moon rises. Is that dealt with in the stage play? I find the book ultimately unsatisfactory. The plot is wonderful but the telling of it long winded. It was the product of a rainy weekend had it rained for a week we may well have had a more convincing piece of literature and maybe the story told from the creatures point of view.

    • CatalinaLGeorge May 12, 2020 at 12:11 pm Reply

      Thank you, John.
      It’s been such a pleasure watching the play and reviewing it. I will read the book, but if it is as you say, then the play thoroughly exceeded the novel itself.

      I personally do not find the advancement of science, even in recreating life, as threatening. The only thing that makes science or politics, for that matter, destructive is lack of humanist ethics. I’ve recently watched “Divergent”, a great sf action movie with deep layers which point to the same fact. Intellect without compassion turns to tyranny, turns against people, against life.

      Will review that one soon too.

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