Danny Boyle's sold-out production of "Frankenstein" is a thrilling theatrical take on Shelley's classic. James Taylor talks to the two actors breathing life into this dark parable ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Within five years of its publication, Mary Shelley’s novel, "Frankenstein", was adapted for mass audiences. There were stage melodramas, burlesques and even parodies. The name “Frankenstein” (usually mistakenly referring to the monster rather than the doctor who created him) was well known in the English-speaking world for more than a hundred years before Universal’s famous film version in 1931. For the past three generations, the image of a green-hued Boris Karloff has been the popular face of Frankenstein, but this year—80 years after James Whale’s film appeared—another filmmaker has re-imagined Shelley’s parable for both the stage and the cinema.
Danny Boyle has made his name in the film world with dazzling camera work and whiz-bang editing, in features such as "Trainspotting", "Slumdog Millionaire" and the recent "127 Hours". But with "Frankenstein"—which is nearing the end of its sold-out run at the National Theatre in London—Boyle’s coup de theatre is much more simple. He has the two actors who portray Dr Victor Frankenstein and his monstrous creation alternate roles every other night.
The result is a production that for all its theatrical bravura (London’s usually jaundiced critics have called it “spectacular,” “stunning,” “mesmerising”) puts the focus on the psychological and moral dramas that first shocked audiences almost 200 years ago.
Boyle’s "Frankenstein" (adapted by Nick Dear) is also the NT’s grandest effort in its own mad experiment in bringing live theatre to cinemas around the world via HD Broadcasts. More Intelligent Life spoke separately with both actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, about what makes this story so timeless, and the challenge of preparing for not one but two big roles for an audience of millions.
Why a new Frankenstein?
Jonny Lee Miller: It came from Danny and Nick [Dear]. As far as they’re concerned no one has ever really tried to tell the story from the creature’s point of view. Obviously Boris Karloff and his wonderful portrayal is what sticks in peoples minds. However that film takes the voice away from the creature, which is contrary to the book, which has whole passages narrated by the creature.
The play opens with the creature (Dear’s text specifies that he is a “creature” not a “monster”) in an extended, almost wordless, sequence. Is the creature the star of this Frankenstein?
Benedict Cumberbatch: The creature is an extraordinary mountain and feast and gift for an actor. The discovery of what the creature is, his extraordinary physical education, the discovery of his body, but then also his mind, the alacrity with which he eats language with the force and hunger that he has for food, with the same strength, he’s extraordinary—but you can’t do it every night.
And Victor is a wonderful, equally visceral character, but in a very different way. He’s this fantastic, sociopathic child who has become obsessed and compartmentalises his life at the cost of all love and tenderness and communication with others and the other sex. Victor on the page is a more recognisable type for me. The revelations came about the versatility you can get in playing him, the levels of vulnerability, arrogance and complete naiveté and extraordinary knowledge and power. All of those thing eeked out slowly, but no less so.
It was vital to me to do both. It’s a shortish evening, only an hour and three-quarters, so it was mentally and physically possible to take on the workload.
When did the concept of two actors come about?
BC: Danny mentioned it as a possibility in our first meeting. I said I would only be interested if that was going to happen. I think it makes such perfect symmetry to the piece, and it balances out the workload.
JLM: Victor and the creature only have two big scenes together in the play. It doesn’t feel like that, but that’s the reality of it. There are these two great scenes that you have together that are always fantastic to play, which ever way round you play them, so it's not a competition for us, in either of the parts. It’s a fascinating question of support and encouragements. Being there, it’s nice to have it both ways around, and not get too exhausted or bogged down by one or the other parts. You get to see the play inside-out, really.
BC: Alternating the roles has been done a few times, but it’s been a while, "True West" did it [on Broadway in 2000, with John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman], Gielgud and Olivier did it as Mercutio and Romeo [at the New Theatre in 1935], but it is an unusual thing to do. Any chance to do it for actors, it’s just a gift. It just keeps everything fresh, it keeps people on their toes.
It’s certainly interesting, but are there difficulties as well?
BC: It's tough, our bodies are all in pain. It’s a fascinating, sort of crippling ourselves doing this. I’ve spent time in X-ray today; I’ve got my hips coming out of joint, my wrist are developing into ankles, 'cause of work I do at the beginning. We’ve had all sorts of injuries, back problems and neck problems. It’s a hard show to do, but it’s also been wonderful. Thank God I like Johnny Lee Miller.
JLM: To be able to stand back during rehearsals, when it was daily and all the time we were switching it around, to be able to stand back and watch another actor do the work you’ve just been working on—once you get over the initial weirdness of that—it’s fascinating, because you get to see things that you think are working, and things that aren’t working.
We were very generous, open-minded and open-hearted, me and Benedict, in not being precious. We’d ask, “I like this that you’re doing, can I take that?” And then you pick and choose. You try not to use the other person’s ideas too much, but it inevitably happens, because you realise that they’re right, you know? So that’s been an amazing thing, to sit and watch—and I’m not sure that all actors—could do that. It took us a long long time, 'cause you’re working on two parts, it takes a lot longer to feel comfortable with them, but we had that time.
How important was it to Danny Boyle and Nick Dear to be faithful to the original source?
JLM: The book was important, but not exactly. Our version does away with a large chunk of the beginning of the book and just wants to tell the story from the creature’s point of view. [We all] felt that you could say much more by telling his story.
BC: Everyone is sick of the idea that Frankenstein is the monster. Everyone gets that cliché wrong. Frankenstein is the scientist—and it should be equally about him. Yes, the monster has been rather graceful (in the form of Karloff, Christopher Lee and others), but it mutes a presence, this physical destructive force that’s confused in its innocence and kills without knowing, and doesn’t really understand its own strength. This stumbling giant with bolts in his neck just had to be sourced to the book; there’s this incredible mirror held up to nature, the nature of a man, and what “nurture” is. That duality, that parity between the creator and the created, is so strong in the book, and the voice the creature has in the book is so strong. It's madness that it hasn’t been dramatised like this before.
Was there been a moment when you realised, “ah, this double cast experiment works?” A sort of “It’s Alive!” moment?
JLM: No. We’re not made to be watching it. We are the performers of the piece, it's ours to inhabit. What I do know is that I feel I bleed some of the creature into Victor, quite a lot, Victor being the parent really in my view, but it’s difficult to say from an audience perspective. We can only gauge how we’re doing from their reaction, and that’s seems to have been quite positive.
Besides the pedigree of the material, and of course, the presence of Danny Boyle, why do think the production has been such a hit?
B.C.: It strikes an enormous chord for people. The story speaks to so much, it has everything to do with acceptance sexually or racially, everything to do with parenting, being a child. [Then there is] the visceral thrill of the spectacle of the show that it really takes people by surprise, the emotional force of it. There is a deep humanity to the story that is very moving…reading all about Shelley, Byron and Mary—that very destructive triumvirate—and how at the core there’s this extraordinary 18-year old writing about a male world going wrong. So it’s all there.
Given how theatrical this production is, is it hubris on the order of Frankenstein's for the National Theatre to try and put live theatre in cinemas?
JLM: It’s a strange one. I’m highly suspicious of it. You know this production is designed to grab to by the hair in the theatre, and there’s a whole other layer of people now technically involved in getting that for the cinema audience. It’s a tricky one, because we’re playing to the Olivier theatre every night and we’re trying to make our performances hit the back of this enormous space. And it's staged in a way so that you can see everything that’s going on all the time. When you step inside that with cameras and stuff, I hope it translates as much as it ever could.
BC: It will probably change the focus, slightly, but it will be near as damn the same experience as you get seeing in the cinema I‘ve never seen one, so I don’t really know what I’m talking about; I’m just getting ready to do one… It’s all been a bit of a blur, probably will be nerve wracking on a very unusual scale. [But] you have to treat it like any other show. It’s live theatre. Anything can happen.
Have you watched any of the production on tape yet?
JLM: No, they don’t let us watch them. But we did have monitors in the wings, so we’ve seen a little bit here and there. I’ll probably wait until everything’s said and done before watching anything, because I’m highly susceptible to paranoia.
After playing both roles, who’s more of a monster: the scientist or his creation?
B.C.: I think it shifts. The obvious thing to say is that the creator is the monster, or that “Victor is a bit of a dick”. But I think that denigrates it, makes it too two-dimensional. I think Johnny and I started playing Victor as a villain, it takes away from the innocent child and the tragedy of his youth. With the creature, he hates what he has to do, and he does know what he’s done. He knows there’s no going back. How much is it nature, how much is it nurture?
With this show, some will go out saying, “Ooh, Victor he’s so nasty”. But audiences come away being moved by both plights, by the fact that both men can only meet their ends by their mutual destruction. That’s what makes a complete evening out of it.
"Frankenstein" is being performed at the National Theatre through May 2nd. Advance tickets are sold out, but day tickets are available for every performance. The fimed version is playing in select theatres.
James C. Taylor writes about theatre and opera for the Los Angeles Times and Opera Magazine. Picture Credit: Catherine Ashmore, "Dissection of the axilla" by Joseph Maclise, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto