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NT Live's 'Frankenstein': The Problem of Staging Frankenstein’s Creature

The combination of a literary classic and Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones — I mean, acting ability…— made the the National Theatre’s 2011 production of ‘Frankenstein’ a must-see and an obvious choice for the National Theatre at Home series. Nick Dear’s adaptation allies the audience with Frankenstein’s creature from the beginning, intent on conveying what the creature himself articulates, “misery made me a fiend.” However, by reimagining the story for the stage and envisioning the early stages of his development, the production inappropriately, and most likely unwittingly, links monstrosity to disability.

Photo Credit: National Theatre

The creature first emerges from a circular, skin-covered structure, making jolting movements and unable to stand upright. To the uninitiated, a fully-grown man moving erratically on stage is uncomfortable as it seems to mimic the movement of disabled people with conditions like cerebral palsy. Audience members with knowledge of the novel, on the other hand, are aware that the creature is effectively an infant, in spite of his size and stature. This assumed understanding is problematic because it is crucial to any comprehension of the jolting movements that the creature makes. What was intended as an interesting visualisation of the difficulties that the creature might have encountered while learning to walk becomes an unwatchable mockery of motor disability.

In their synopsis, the National Theatre describes the creature as ‘childlike in his innocence but grotesque in form’. Disability has an intimate relationship to grotesquery and monstrosity which can be most pertinently explored through the history of freak shows. As a novel, Frankenstein was most likely influenced by the concept of freak shows, especially since, by the 18th century, abnormal and disabled bodies were seen in both spaces of scientific enquiry and entertainment. These ‘freaks’ were not, however, fully accepted into society and humour was used to mute the potentially disruptive power of their bodies. We have, for good reason, rewritten those social codes and it is now taboo to greet bodily difference with exclusionary laughter. Despite never intending to, the extended opening sequence confronts the audience with a disabled person that is not accepted, unwittingly going against these social codes of inclusion without addressing this power dynamic. The production fails to have the foresight to see its creature through the audience’s eyes.

‘Frankenstein’ relies too heavily on the “universal” morals that are present in the text rather than responding to the current moment and, as such, demonstrates the consequences of adhering to tradition. By staging Frankenstein’s creature in a way that is true to its literary source, as opposed to radically rethinking the creature, the National Theatre inadvertently excludes its disabled audience members as part of a monstrous Other. As our ‘national’ theatre, it must be a purveyor of diverse perspectives because that is the cornerstone of groundbreaking, relevant theatre.

Edited by Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor

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