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In the cold summer of 1816, the young Mary Shelley began a story that was to fix an almost instant hold on the imaginations of readers. It would inspire a wealth of horror films and create one of the most influential figures in popular culture. It was Frankenstein, the story of a scientist and his fatal act of creation. Now, some 200 years later, the playwright Nick Dear is engaged on his own experiment, taking Shelley’s novel and attempting to galvanise it for the stage.
It is a high-profile project. It opens on the vast Olivier stage of London’s National Theatre, is directed by Danny Boyle (returning to the stage between filming 127 Hours and working on the opening ceremony for London’s Olympic Games), and stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. But why tackle Frankenstein again? After all, we’re not short of adaptations. A dramatised version hit the boards just five years after the novel was published and the screen treatments are legion, most memorably James Whale’s 1931 film, with the bolt-necked, craggy-featured Boris Karloff as the nameless creature.
“I think it is remembered for a series of wrong reasons,” says Dear, who was last at the National with his play Power. “I want to see it reinstated as a fantastically intelligent piece of writing: something really questing and original that isn’t out of date 200 years on.”
Dear and Boyle hope to strip away some of the horror-movie fug that hangs around the story and get back to what they perceive as the real thrill of it: the daring intellectual ideas and deep moral concerns. In the story of a scientist who creates something that runs beyond his control, Shelley raised all sorts of questions about scientific responsibility, moral development and what it means to be human. Dear, who likens the audacity of the novel to the work of the young Beatles, says it was remarkably prescient:
“The world had gone on in much the same way for a very long time and was about to change very, very fast. So she kind of prefigures that. It’s a creation for the science age. It was published in the same year as Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Whereas Austen looks back on the previous century, Mary Shelley is looking forward to the technological revolution …200 years on from when she wrote it, our technology is such that we are achieving now what she had nightmares about. It seems there is no check on the human ability to drive forward into the unknown.”
Indeed, such is the wealth of issues in the novel that the National Theatre is holding a series of talks, touching on the story’s scientific territory, its impact on cinema and discussing Shelley’s life (with speakers including particle physicist Brian Cox and biographers Richard Holmes and Claire Tomalin). But Dear’s task is to deal with the emotional journey of the piece.
“I want simply to address the great central question of the novel, the responsibility of the scientist towards his experiment,” he says. “As Danny and I talked about it, we came to the conclusion that we’d never seen any version of it that really tried to put the creature’s point of view. So we thought we’d try to address that notion of what does it mean to be the experiment?”
At the heart of Dear’s play, then, will be the creature, the life-form that Frankenstein creates. Dear will not reveal what the creature will look like, though he does state categorically that he won’t be an 8ft freak encumbered by bolts or a lumbering gait. But this creature will talk – “we show him acquire language and by the end achieve a high level of articulacy” – and his ability to speak is crucial.
“In none of the movies I’m familiar with does the creature get articulacy to defend his feelings and to confront his maker,” says Dear. “It’s about these two beings, the creator and his creation, the scientist and his experiment. What is unusual about it is the notion that suddenly the experiment talks back and challenges the scientist to justify what he has done. And right at the heart of the story is a huge confrontation between the two. It’s man and God, obviously: ‘Why did you make me, why did you make me like this and then why did you abandon me?’ ”
The confrontation between the two characters is given extra piquancy in this staging because the two lead actors will alternate in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the creature. It is an audacious move – one that means audiences will see different shows, depending on which night they attend. But Dear points out that the idea fits with the novel’s doppelgänger theme and with its questions about identity, nature and nurture, society and the outsider.
“Flipping the actors round has given us a fantastic opportunity to explore that idea of the creature being some kind of extrapolation of Victor’s own personality,” he says. “The scientist is a narcissist in that he tries to create something in his own image, he’s a sort of amateur god. He can’t finesse it very well and makes a bit of a mess of it but the intention is to make something like him.
“His motives as a scientist are very pure: he sets out to eliminate disease, to advance human experience. It goes horribly wrong, primarily because he’s terrified by what he’s done and he abandons the thing he has created …and the creature clearly sets out with good moral intent. He’s a noble savage and becomes vengeful, violent and destructive because society rejects him. A sense of abandonment permeates the novel and the play. Danny and I have focused on the feelings of loneliness in the story.”
Dear and Boyle first hit upon the idea of staging Frankenstein some 20 years ago when working on The Last Days of Don Juan at the RSC. At the time they both had small children. Those children are now young adults and Dear explains that both men are fascinated by the questions the story raises about fatherhood.
“That whole business of seeing bits of yourself emerge in your children as they grow and the terrifying realisation that you’re turning into your parents in some ways – that informed this a lot. I think the novel is threaded through with a debate about parenthood. There are no mothers in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Her own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to her and there’s a clear subtext in the novel (often commented on by scholars) that if men are left to do things by themselves, they make a cock-up.”
Given that, there is surely an irony that this stage version is created by two men and that the staging is experimental, with two male actors alternating in the lead. Does this not pose a risk that, like Victor Frankenstein’s experiment, it could all go horribly wrong?
“It sure does,” says Dear, with a laugh. “And it has huge connotations for the understudy call.”
‘Frankenstein’, National Theatre, London, opens February 22 and 23. Broadcast live to cinemas worldwide on National Theatre Live, March 17. www.nationaltheatre.org.uk