Benedict Cumberbatch, right, is the Creature, and Jonny Lee Miller is Victor… (Catherine Ashmore )
Entering the Downtown Independent near Little Tokyo on Thursday for the National Theatre Live's broadcast of director Danny Boyle's stage production of "Frankenstein," I found it impossible to leave behind the unfolding series of catastrophes in Japan that has the world collectively holding its breath.
The current crisis follows us everywhere. With the hard-to-fathom images of flattened towns, the protracted suspense over radiation levels and the frustration of not being able to do more than donate to relief organizations, it's no wonder there's a growing hunger for deeper reflection on this multipronged calamity, in which natural disasters have set off an unnatural one.
Journalism bombards us with passing information; artists call our attention to enduring truths. But the story of a scientist rivaling God for earthly dominion seems to me uniquely pertinent at a time when the costs (economic, political and ecological) of mankind's breathtaking scientific advances have never been more evident. Boyle's production, the must-see event in London at the moment, is blessedly free of topical references, but playwright Nick Dear's dramatic handling of Mary Shelley's novel lucidly conveys the acute relevance of a doctor forgetting that he is part of creation, not above it.
Generally speaking, dramatists haven't had much to say about earthquakes or tsunamis, although a good portion of my moviegoing boyhood in the 1970s was spent watching people outrace toppling buildings, occasionally in Sensurround. But manmade disaster has been a staple of playwriting at least as far back as Aeschylus and his fellow Greek tragedians, who specialized in the saga of humanity trying to exceed its limits.
Shelley's gothic tale from 1818, subtitled "The Modern Prometheus," updated this tragic pattern for an industrial age that bears many similarities to our own technology-worshipping era. One of the points of connection is an obsession with energy. The early 19th century was fascinated with electricity as a source of boundless, almost diabolical potential. (You'll recall the flashes of extravagant lightning zapping through all the Frankenstein movies, a trope that has been artfully translated by Boyle into a chandelier-like mass of curiously sinister light bulbs.)
The 21st century, as no one needs reminding, has become utterly addicted to the fuel that makes possible the conveniences of modern living, which very few of us would be willing to give up even if it means wrecking the planet in the process. (If oil spills, trapped miners, melting icecaps, nuclear fallout, Middle East unrest and skyrocketing prices at the pump can't put a dent in our rapaciousness, you have to wonder whether anything short of an apocalypse can.)
Boyle and Dear treat Shelley's story as an existential fable: Human beings hell-bent on mastery inevitably wreak their own destruction. The boldest choice of this newfangled "Frankenstein" is the shift in the balance of perspective. The first half of the production tracks the monster's "birth" and development; Victor Frankenstein arrives on the scene only after our sympathies have already been established. The monster stands head and shoulders above Frankenstein, and not just in the literal sense. This scarred semblance of man is more hero than bugaboo.
The leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, have been swapping roles, which no doubt has contributed to the mesmerizing suppleness of their performances. Cumberbatch's Creature was so unexpectedly moving and Miller's Frankenstein so convincingly alienated at Thursday's broadcast that it's hard for me to imagine how it would work the other way, though NT Live is offering the opportunity to see both versions. (For scheduling information, visit http://www.ntlive.com.)
The Creature, though manufactured with assorted graveyard parts, has a naturalness that is striking. The opening scene is an elaborate coup of physical theater dramatizing its emergence from a membrane-like chrysalis. It crawls, squirms, squawks and stumbles like the adult-sized infant it is. Escaping into the night, this poor baffled sack of stitched parts tries to understand its identity. Why was it born? What is the point of this burden of consciousness?
Educated by a blind man (Karl Johnson) who cannot see how grotesque he is, the Creature is introduced to the world of poetry and philosophy. He learns parts of Milton's "Paradise Lost" by heart and comes to realize the extent of his loneliness. Wounded by the intolerance of others, he lashes out at his offenders, returning cruelty with starker cruelty. He is at once a metaphor for the perversion of science and a figure of the Earth taking revenge on its ungrateful inhabitants.