Creative act … Boris Karloff gets a monster makeover from director James Whale in 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
Danny Boyle’s hotly anticipated production of Frankenstein, in a new version by Nick Dear, opens next week at the National theatre. The show’s two leads, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, will be alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature, so, unless they can afford to go twice, audience members are going to have to choose which way round they want to see the casting. But is this doubling up just an astute marketing ploy? Or is it, perhaps, a broader commentary? Can the relationship of Frankenstein and the Creature tell us anything about the symbiotic relationship of stage and audience? Even about the theatre itself?
There is quite a history of doubling parts in the theatre. The renowned 19th-century actors William Macready and Samuel Phelps alternated the roles of Iago and Othello at Drury Lane in 1837. When the American tragedian Edwin Booth (brother, incidentally, of the infamous John Wilkes Booth) was having little success with his 1880 tour of England, Henry Irving invited Booth to alternate the same roles with him at the Lyceum. And Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud famously swapped the roles of Romeo and Mercutio at the New theatre in 1935. Many plays have used twins – actual doubles – as a motif: Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, and Fabian and Louis di Franchi in Boucicault’s 1852 The Corsican Brothers are examples. Twins have been cast together too: Harry and Luke Treadaway in Mark Ravenhill’s 2009 Over There at the Royal Court and the fabulous Luisa and Sandra Guerreiro, who appeared in Katie Mitchell’s The Cat in the Hat at the National theatre the same year.
Culturally, doubles make us uneasy. There are many superstitions about mirrors – apparently actors believe, for instance, that it’s bad luck to see their reflection over the shoulder of another person. The uncanniness and potential danger of meeting our doppelganger – our double, or “fetch” – has been the trigger for many a dramatic narrative: remember the story of the poor haunted clerk, Mr Golyadkin, in Dostoevsky’s chilling 1846 novella The Double, or of Madeleine and Judy in Hitchcock’s Vertigo? So why has the theatre taken the double as such a recurring motif, from Hamlet’s initial injunction on the purpose of playing – “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature” – to Artaud’s 1938 The Theatre and Its Double? Who are the doubles here? The actors? The characters? Or is it perhaps us, the audience?
One of the themes of Mary Shelley’s original novel is precisely how far the Creature can be seen as the double of Frankenstein himself: both are isolated, suffering; both are lonely. The Creature is acting, even in his terrible deeds, almost as the subconscious of Victor, who calls him “my own spirit let loose from the grave”. Shelley’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, captures the relationship of the two: Frankenstein usurping God by moulding his own likeness from the clay.
Is there not something here about the nature of theatrical characterisation itself? The creature is not born but made, from fragments and memories and pieces of other people; the “thing of shreds and patches” brought to life in the particular crucible of the stage; an invention which ends up with a life beyond its creators. Is it this that makes of the theatre a real laboratory? Not a white-tiled, fume-cupboarded version, full of fridges and test tubes, but something far more risky: a space of possibility and danger, of bodies anatomised on tables, of darkness and false sight, bare wires and sulphur; and, in the dark, appearing from beyond the curtain, a vision of something, a creature – a human – that may well be the real “double” of the theatre: ourselves.