I went out last week. Hang on, I’ll say that again. I went out! A night out to celebrate a good friend’s birthday with some other very good friends I see all too infrequently. I was driving so not drinking (probably for the best – you’ll see why), but I was out. After dark. People do this. I’d almost forgotten.
Friends and a film. What more can you ask for? And not just any film. We were going to see, very belatedly, Danny Boyle’s NT production of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Frankenstein. Two actors I like a lot. A director I admire hugely. A novel I love and know backwards, forwards, and inside out. And good company to share popcorn with. What could go wrong?
People. People went wrong. And I haven’t felt right since.
The screening began with a very short documentary on the making of the production. Most people seemed uninterested in it and for most of it I was too busy dealing with texts from home about the location of grobags and sterilised syringes to take much notice.
But my ears pricked up suddenly when I heard Cumberbatch talking about stroke patients and watching as many videos as he could of their recovery to try to figure out how to convey the birth of Mary Shelley’s creature: a man who through the accident of his creation has a brain and a body that aren’t wired up as they should be.
I felt a hot stab of pain run through my chest as he spoke. He was talking about neurorehabilitation. He was talking about intensive physiotherapy. He was talking about the impact of neurological damage on gross and fine motor function. He said stroke survivors, I thought cerebral palsy. Did you know many people with CP had a stroke before, during or shortly after labour? Boo didn’t, but I knew that what Cumberbatch was trying to do with his creature would strike very close to home. I worried I wouldn’t be able to deal with it. I’m not sure I did.
He was going to be on stage what Boo is in life: a person not entirely in control of his own body. And he would be doing this in the context of a fictional world where he (nameless, and known only as the creature, an ogre or ugly man) is considered monstrous. And that would be hard for me to see.
That’s the point of course. And Cumberbatch spoke directly and eloquently about this in the brief documentary. He wanted to convey through this intensive research the profound physical and emotional vulnerability of this man. For my money, he did. Brilliantly.
If you’ve seen the show or the filmed version you won’t have forgotten the first 10 minutes or so. It is a scene that is unrecognisable from the book, in which the creature is galvanised and shunned by his creator in a heartbeat. This was different. Ten long, extraordinary minutes where the creature emerges from an artificial embryo and writhes, dystonically around the stage on his back, front and eventually on his legs, battling his body at every turn, its spasms and the natural patterns of movement that you and I learned to overcome in baby and toddlerhood. It was remarkable. I saw dystonia. I saw hyperextension. I saw movements, jolts and shakes that anyone who knows someone who lives with CP would recognise. It was extreme. It was one of the most viscerally affecting things I have ever seen. Boy he’d done his research and executed it extraordinarily.
It was supposed to be hard to watch, of course. And it was. Really, really hard. But for me it was hard in ways I bet it wasn’t for most of the people in the audience. I sat there digging my nails into my palms so that I didn’t cry. I didn’t know the two people sat next to me at all well. I couldn’t let them hear me cry. And I’m not sure they’d have understood why I was sobbing anyway. You see, I wasn’t choking back tears because of what I was seeing. It was what I heard that hurt.
Laughter. Lots of laughter.
Now, I’ve been somewhere like this before when I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan, starring Daniel Radcliffe, last year. That was both great and hard to watch, too. But that was a comedy. Frankenstein is not, nor did Boyle intend it to be. And people were laughing. Hard.
Now, you might say (and I can see the truth in this) that people were laughing at the creature because they felt uncomfortable. All those teenage girls in the audience who were there to see the man they know best as Sherlock probably did feel uncomfortable seeing their heartthrob look and behave physically so out of character. But they laughed also at a sight they clearly found humorous. A grown man moving around like an uncoordinated toddler.
I have never ever been so relieved to get to end of a scene as I was to get to the end of that one. I thought it would be OK after that. But if anything, it got worse. One of the hardest things to convey in any adaptation of Frankenstein must be the creature’s acquisition of language, which comes about rather improbably in the novel itself. This adaptation did things a bit differently from the novel and lost something as a result, but it worked well enough. And again Cumberbatch was just brilliant. His speech reminded me of Boo’s. The high tone he affected in his mouth and tongue made his speech sounds indistinct and child-like. The dissonance between his manner of speech and its content (the creature can quote epic poetry and ancient philosophy) was supposed to startle the audience just like it does in the novel. But I can’t help but think it wasn’t supposed to make you laugh. And people did laugh at him. A lot.
Believe me, I do still have a sense of humour. I really do. But this was not funny. This was about that vulnerability spoken about in the documentary. About how the way that someone looks or sounds overrides what they know and who they are.
This creature was vulnerable not because some mad scientist made him wrongly. He was vulnerable because the world is full of people who are innocent or ignorant, personally insecure or prejudiced or just downright cruel.
If making audience members aware of their own complicity in these forms of prejudice was part of the point of Danny Boyle’s production then it was a point not lost on me. But I worry that those who needed to hear that message most might not have.
Because my work takes me into the past a lot, I often thank our lucky stars that Boo was born in the 2010s, with the wonders of modern medicine (without which we both would have died), modern technologies and disability legislation. But what Frankenstein showed me was that when it comes to prejudice, the past is still with very much with us.
Perhaps you will think I’m being unfair or high-handed. Perhaps you’ll think I’m overreacting. Maybe I am. All I can say is that this production of Frankenstein was as much a revelation to me as the novel was when I first read it at the age of 15. There were bits of the script that I thought were weak. There were bits left out of the original novel that I thought the play really needed to make full sense. But the performances, particularly Cumberbatch’s and Miller’s, were astonishing and worth all the accolades they got. The direction was superb and the play hit its mark.
But I left ever more convinced of something I see and feel every single day of Boo’s life. Physical and neurological difference don’t make people vulnerable. People make other people vulnerable. And people can be bloody horrible.