Frankenstein At The National

Content note: discussion of rape, racism, ableism, oppression, violence towards women of colour.

I remember watching Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre back in 2011. Those heady days when I could sit in close proximity to lots of people in a darkened room and watch other humans move about on a raised platform, I’m talking about theatre darrling. One of the production’s clever tricks was to have the two lead actors, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, interchange the roles of Dr Victor Frankenstein and the Creature on different nights. I took my seat not knowing who I’d get and as one hundred light bulbs glared and fizzed there appeared before me a very naked Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature. I had a whale of a time.

Nearly ten years later and last week I decided to watch Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature and was once again impressed by the production, especially the quality of acting and the versatility of the staging as we were taken from busy steam trains to the Orkneys and way off into the Arctic. However, what I noted this time round is despite the supposed universality of the Frankenstein myth – when man plays God he does it very badly and lots of people get hurt (yup, pretty accurate) – the play’s protagonists lacked contextualisation. We are never asked to spend much time exploring Dr Frankenstein’s identity as a wealthy, white, able-bodied man who has the luxury to spend time building a human from bits of corpses and then immediately do a runner once things don’t go quite to plan (namely, he finds the Creature too ugly). Hmm, a man making a mess and not taking responsibility for it, sound familiar?

Another central theme of the Frankenstein story is how the monsters which haunt us are often of our own making. The Creature can very much be seen as parts of Victor’s psyche made manifest, some of which transcend his own capacity for morality while others turn to murder and rape (as implied in the book, as depicted on stage). And again, the Creature as a projection of Victor, a contextless man, also lacks context, he is an embodiment of feelings, sensations and impulses concocted in a laboratory. Whereas in our everyday world we create contextualised monsters all the time, for example, in the way racist white people treat black people, bigoted men treat women, prejudiced able-bodied people treat people with disabilities. Oppression often involves the projection of things we hate or do not understand about ourselves onto others. Yet watching Victor and the Creature clash on stage I felt they were robbed of any ability to offer a more nuanced take on oppression precisely because they lacked context. This relates to the diverse casting of the play with a brilliant Naomie Harris trying to get some mileage out of the brief stage time given to Elizabeth Lavenza before she is graphically killed by the monster. However, just as with the parts played by George Harris and Jared Richard, I would argue the production doesn’t ask us to think about race. The fact a black woman is raped and murdered on stage is less significant than the fact that Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s fiancé, is raped and murdered on stage because it’s his story after all (even though we’re never asked to explore much of who he really is).

Despite oppression, sexism and ableism being key themes of the story, the play fails to adequately explore them because it never really bothers to explore the contexts and privileges of the protagonists. In Victor we could see the embodiment of white, able-bodied, male, privilege writ large, outsourcing his violent desires to his reviled white, male Creature constantly facing violence for being “ugly” and “different”, but instead we just see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller duking it out on stage. Frankenstein is an amazing novel which had much to say in 1818 and still has much to say today but Frankenstein, Danny Boyle’s production, while repeating many of the original messages didn’t say much more for 2011/20. Perhaps what the play inadvertently reminds us is that within supposed ‘universal’ stories lies an awful lot of unspoken privilege and injustice.

T2 Trainspotting And Why Men Can Be Idiots

So, T2 Trainspotting is happening. Twenty years after the events of the original movie and that loveable bunch of drug taking Edinburgh-based rogues aren’t faring too well. What ensues is another ride of exceptionally dark comedy, musings on ageing and a wee bit of drug taking on the side. The lads are struggling with the whole growing older thing and are stuck between emptyish lives and nostalgia for a past they only part remember. I shan’t spoil any of the plot but if you loved the first movie then you’ll like this. The soundtrack is also pretty kick-ass. Instead, I want to refer you to a brief clip from the Graham Norton Show in which the team behind T2 were interviewed including director Danny Boyle and lead actor Ewen McGregor.

It’s a fascinating clip especially because it’s about two men who fell out and then took years to forgive one another. As Boyle says “it’s one of the things weirdly the film is about…trying to express emotions.” Of course, what he doesn’t specify is that it’s about men trying to express emotions (most likely cisgendered men and probably heterosexual), indeed, the majority of the film is about men being men (and fucking it up) with the odd women doing a cameo appearance.

As Boyle and McGregor explain they fell out over a “misunderstanding” about the former not casting the latter in the very successful film The Beach. However,  McGregor acknowledges that “it was never about The Beach it was about [their] friendship” but the incident led to years of them not talking to one another. However, as time passed their views changed what with McGregor doing a wonderful speech about another hit film of Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and Boyle describing feeling a great “shame” about how he handled the situation. And years later there they both were in 1st class on a plane back from Shanghai, the only ones still awake on their luxury beds, and McGregor thought the time had come – the time to get up, say sorry and mend the past. Of course, that’s how it would play out in a movie (because in movies people tend to learn their lessons) but in reality neither of them spoke to one another and there was no heartfelt reunion. And, my god, is this just another example of how men can be so terrible at communicating. I was raised a cisgendered man and there was scant little education in understanding and expressing my emotions and feelings. I didn’t quite fit the mould of typical masculinity but it was still the predominant lifestyle option and, boy, was it lacking.

So, it’s not weird at all that T2 is about men failing to communicate with one another and living pretty sad and often scary lives as a consequence and nor is it a surprise that a similar turn of events happened in the lives of the real people behind the film. Of course, they’re big dog Hollywood millionaires but that doesn’t mean they’re rich in the ability to communicate. So, men, I really think it’s time we learnt our lessons and realised that a greater awareness of our emotions is not a weakness or something to be ashamed of, it is actually empowering because the human being is basically one giant bundle of feelings that occasionally thinks. And sure, there would be less plot devices for movies because men would start getting things right and stop trying to kill each other so often but at least we’d get happier endings in real life, preferably without a twenty year time gap.