April 2011

Today she was 95!  She knew there was something special.  The nurses put up a banner and two balloons in her room, they had even baked a cake with a single candle on it, sang happy birthday, but they had lost her shoes and she had lost all recollection.  She couldn’t understand why had they dolled her up, combed her hair, dressed her in her smartest blue dress, even shaved the whiskers from her chin?  What was going on? 

She was worried about where she was going and so was her friend Betty.  ‘You will bring her back won’t you?’   I promised to get her back by supper.  

All the way to Chatsworth, she kept up a running commentary. ‘Look at those trees.  What do you call them; the ones with the white blossom.  Can you smell them?  It looks like a reservoir up there?  I used to walk along here.  That’s a lovely house.  I remember that tree.  I went everywhere by myself.  I’ve been in that pub. What do you call this town?  Ah, yes, Hathersage.’   She was like a little girl on an outing.  ‘Oh I won’t want to go back home. …..   I can’t remember where I live.’     

I took her to the farm shop and she plodded along after me, carrying the empty bag.  She likes being with people.  I had to talk loudly to her and repeat myself.  It was like being on stage, but the audience looked away. 

At my cottage, she enjoyed the lemon tea and the date and walnut cake.  She opened her cards.  Simon had made her a card with a rather beautiful poppy on it; mine was a photo of bluebells.  But when the conversation lapsed, she looked around in panic and in a voice, querulous and pitched high, declared,  ‘ I am unsettled; I don’t know where I am’.  I explained this was my house.  ‘But where do I live?  Can’t I stay with you?

When we returned the others were having tea, the same blank expressions, looking but not seeing, grabbing their food with mechanical shovels – got to keep the body alive even though ……  I parked her at a table, went to put her coat back in her room, propped her cards up, noticed that Doreen had left a present for her – some tiny white flowers in a pot and looked in Pamela’s room for the pictures of the family that had gone missing, but when I went in to say goodbye, she’d forgotten I’d ever come.

Lionel has been rector of his poor inner city London parish for a long time.  He is a compassionate man, who offers support and pastoral care to his parishioners,  visits hospitals and prisons and is a good shepherd to his flock,  but Lionel’s  faith is slipping.   This is reported to Charlie, Bishop of Southwark, who urges him to express his  true faith in the liturgy.  ‘It’s not so much what you believe’,  he asserts, ‘as what you are seen to believe’; the Christian ritual is clearly more important than pastoral care.   Lionel and his friends have quietly ignored this while paying lip service to it.  Donald ‘Streaky’ Bacon, cannot see what all the fuss is about.  He glories in God’s natural world and can’t be doing with the dogma.  Things come to a head when the newly ordained Tony, who has discovered  his evangelistic zeal and rejected his much more realistic relationship with his perceptive girl friend, persuades one of Lionel’s practitioners to leave her husband.  In the meantime, Harry’s live-in relationship with Ewan has got into the Sunday papers.  But it’s Lionel, who the Bishop, furious at the ordination of women, is after.   He may succeed in the short term, but change is inevitable.        

David Hare’s play reminds me of recent deliberations of the future of British psychoanalysis.  Are those trained in the dark arts a  loose philosophical conglomeration of curious and reflective individuals driven by a desire to understand and make sense of our collective existence in order to help their clients or are they  constitutionally bound to uphold the belief and values of a particular dogma, to practice the ritual, intone the liturgy.  Is is there any difference between the psychoanalytical institutions and certain Christian sects or even the Orwellian ‘Thought Police’?  The threat of Big  Brother is ever present.  Dare to express a different opinion and you could be excommunicated.      

The difficulty is that however much we may try to maintain the faith, however much we may fear change, we can’t stop it happening.  If we are going to survive, we have to adapt.  Psychoanalysis is very different than it was in the 1930s; beliefs, attitudes, forms of communication, the structure and even the existence of the family are all different.  We are all divided from our children by time and change. 

Psychotherapy has become more accountable, more measurable; like it or loathe it, most therapists and counsellors are practicing a modified form of cognitive behavioural therapy.  Like the tribes of Papua New Guinea, the culture of psychoanalysis is not so much dying but being assimilated into more generic forms of psychotherapy.  I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.   I believe that psychoanalytically inclined psychotherapists should communicate and work with the new breed of counsellors and psychotherapists and lend their considerable insight to bring about an evolution of thought and practice?   

But isn’t that what’s happening?  How many psychoanalytical psychotherapists practice a pure form of psychoanalysis?  Haven’t we all found in various ways that we have had to develop our own eclectic blend of practices?  Isn’t this what education is about?  We learn a method and then adapt it according to the environment in which we work.   Our training provides a way of thinking that we cannot ignore, but doesn’t this create opportunities to cross pollinate and produce more robust cultivars?  Shouldn’t we embrace and be as curious about the new influences as we are about the old doctrines?  The question for all refective beings is how we can create the sort of integrative, lively meeting of minds from which we can grow.  Were Sigmund Freud still alive, I don’t think he would cling to the ideas he had a century ago.  He always tried to move with the times. 

Racing Demons has been one of three plays in the recent David Hare season in Sheffield.  The Cameron government is seeking to regulate  psychotherapy as a discipline under the Health Professions Council.    

In society, behaviour is everything .  You have to be seen to conform to the values and attitudes of the group, to belong, especially if you are in a minority separate culture like the Jews in North London.   You’re either in or you’re out. 

David is so anxious to be considered part of the Jewish community in Edgware, that he would sacrifice family, everything.   So when his son Danny, fighting in the Iraeli army tries to tell his father he is scared and wants to return home, David tells him that his loyalty to his men is more important; he has to do his duty.  But Danny is killed, and before he dies he testifies to his sister Ruth, a human rights lawyer working on a report about Israeli atrocities in Gaza, about the guilt he feels at having bombed innocent children in a school.  

Ruth is demonised by the community for her apparent criticism of the Jewish state and David is ostracised.  People like the appalling Saul, a gynaecologist and synagogue leader, withdraw their trade from David. 

So David is forced into a dreadful conflict.  Is he to bow down to the wishes of the community and stop his daughter attending the funeral or is he to support all of his children, acknowledge Danny’s fear and guilt and face down his society?  Can he support his family in the face of prejudice?  Can he understand and help his second son, Jonny, who is lost in drugs and meaninglessness?  Can he be proud of his daughter for her courage?  Can he feel compassion for Danny?   These are the components of David’s dilemma.  What’s more important, his society or his soul?  

Too much trouble in the world, too many wars,  are caused by the blind adherence to dogma, to attitudes laid down by a rigid and fearful society.   More people need to stand up for what they feel is right, to speak out.

Dare to be a Jonah!  Dare to stand alone!  How many of us would be confident enough in our own skin to face isolation in the service of what we feel is right?  

Henry Goodman plays David in Ryan Craig’s  new play, ‘The Holy Rosenbergs’ currently being performed at the Cottesloe.   Henry Goodman is for me one of our very best actors.  The Cottesloe the perfect intimate space for such a close family drama.   ‘Dare to be a Jonah’ is the motto that Tony Benn has attempted to live by.    

Who was Eddie Carbone?  Was he the strong leader of the longshoremen that worked between Brooklyn Bridge and the breakwater in the nineteen fifties, the kind uncle, who offered a home to his orphaned niece,  the compassionate community activist who found employment and  accommodation for illegal immigrants from the old country?   Yes all of these.  These aspects of Eddie deserved respect, but there was also a dark side; Eddie the tyrant, the bully, the weak man, so insecure of his own masculinity and power, he would terrorise his wife and niece and betray those he offered to shelter and protect. 

The trouble started when Marco and Rodolfo came to stay.  Eddie was already preoccupied by the blossoming sexuality of his niece, Catherine, and becoming over-possessive, but when it became clear that she was falling in love with Rodolfo, he had to put a stop to it.  He told his lodgers to leave, but Catherine threatened to leave too, so Eddie, desperate to keep his niece, informed the immigration authorities and Marco and Rodolfo were arrested pending deportation.  Out on bail, Marco comes looking for Eddie.  They fight, Eddie pulls a knife, but during the tussle, Marco turns the knife on Eddie and kills him. 

The View from the Bridge, probably Arthur Miller’s most powerful work, exposes the fragility of the American dream of opportunity, freedom and shelter for the dispossessed, through the complex personality of Eddie.

Eddie affects strength and demands respect, but is so insecure of his own sexuality and power.  His wife Beatrice is in charge of the home (and the bed) and Eddie is troubled by the sexual presence of Catherine and too concerned about Rodolfo’s sexuality.   He is threatened by the arrival of the cousins from Italy and feels compelled to demonstrate his dominance in demonstrations of boxing and trials of strength, which he loses.  He fears the loss of his dominant status in the community and the family, and resorts, like all weak leaders, to tyranny.   Inevitably, his entrenched attitude brings about the tragedy that shatters the world of everybody associated with him. 

And now America is trying to exert its will on Libya by bombing forces loyal to its leader.  It won’t end well for any of us.


 Lights up. 

Jean and Roy are stark naked on the bed.  Jean is lying on her back. Roy is sitting sideways with his back to her.  Neither moves. 


Roy picks up a packet of cigarettes and takes one out.

Wanna fag?


Roy gives her a cigarette, then lights the cigarettes, his own first

Good that, wannit?


It is a cold December evening in 1978, the winter of discontent.  They are in Jean’s bedsit in Kilburn and have just enjoyed another meaningless fuck before Roy has to shoot off back to his wife and kids.  Jean’s face is bleak, expressionless.  Roy is bored, eager to go.  He leaves her a can of beer.  A few days later, he returns for another go, but Jean isn’t interested.  He gets angry, violent, but Dawn arrives.  Then Val, his wife bursts in.  They fight and leave, breaking the bed.   Jean and Dawn depart  the scene of desolation and go down the pub. 

Later, they return with Mick, Dawn’s Irish husband and Len, a slow, kindly man who was once sweet on Jean.  They get drunk.  Jean sings Danny Boy, wistfully.  She has a lovely voice.  The others thump out bawdy rhymes and laugh.  ‘Oh, dirty, dirty!’  Dawn squeals. They’re having such a wicked time; such good craik!  Mick and Dawn dance, become amorous.  Len and Jean sit apart, merely observers.  Mick and Dawn leave noisily.  Jean breaks down, tells Len he can stay if he wants to.  But Len cares too much to fuck her and at the same time too much to abandon her.  He kisses her goodnight and settles down in the chair in from of the fire and waits for the meter to run out. 

Last year, an estimated 35% of British people were living alone, many in circumstances as squalid as Jean’s.  But living alone is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can be good to have our own space, to think our own thoughts.  Solitude can be peace, contemplation, balm for the spirit, as long as you know that somebody is there.  Loneliness is something altogether different;  it’s that painful awareness of being alone in the world, that nobody cares, and life has no meaning. 

That’s what Jean suffers from.  It was better when she was able to go out onto the forecourt and chat to the drivers as she was filling their cars.  Now she is behind a screen, she takes the money they pass through the slit, tells them to type their pin in.  Nobody engages; nobody cares. 

There is no human connection for Jean except for her occasional night visitor.   But the callous devastation of it all shocks us to the core.   An act of love that should carry all the meaning in the world is desecrated, violated, forcibly stripped of any affection.  It might have been better if Jean  had been paid; but she had sunk so low, become so lonely that she puts up with any connection, however brutal and exploitative.  This is the Misrata of the soul.  If love means nothing, then what meaning can be found in any other aspect of life.   Why bother?   

‘Whatever’  has become the most hopeless word of our age.  It conveys a complete lack of care and meaning.  Whatever!  If anything goes, nothing has any meaning.            


It’s 30 years on since Mike Leigh wrote Ecstasy and the first time he has ever revived a play, but the theme is perhaps more relevant, more shocking, now than  it was then.  Loneliness could be seen as the most prevalent illness of our time, only we tend to call it depression or a variety of other medically unexplained illnesses.  If we are not to fail as a species, we need to find society, community, love and meaning and take it three times a day with meals. 

After a successful run at The Hsampstead Theatre, Ecstasy has transferred to the West End and is currently playing at The Duchess Theatre, Covent Garden. 

The craft of David Hare is how he blends the political and personal in a mutual metaphor that illustrates a theme.  Plenty is a play about freedom,  the personal freedom of a woman to live a life of adventure in an environment where this was frowned on.  It’s also about boredom.   The political backdrop is the erosion of empire, the debacle of Suez and the realisation having won the war, Britain was no longer a great power in the world. 

Susan is a young woman with yearning for adventure.  During the latter years of the second world war, she served with the French Resistance; dangerous, exciting work, risking her life and snatching love whenever she could.   Back in England after the war, she could not recapture that same  excitement and adventure she needed working in an shipping office, organising events,  creating television advertisements.   She was bored.  Only Alice, who didn’t give a damn about what people thought,  provided the sense of fun she desperately needed.  But after a failed relationship with a street trader, Mick (played by  Sting),  she was admitted to a mental institution, and rescued by Raymond, a minor diplomat.  She marries Raymond,  but is almost driven mad by the boredom of it all.  She escapes and meets again the love of her life, a young airman with the codename of Lazare, whom she met and loved for a single night, but never forgot.   Their second encounter was a disappointment; they got drunk, made love, and he left …. again. 

For me, the play hinged around two vignettes:  Susan on a radio panel was asked why she fought in The Resistance,  she said she was fighting for freedom, but from her confusion, you guessed  it was not freedom for the French, it was her own personal freedom to do something that meant something for her.  In the other scenario, Sir Andrew, the Foreign Minister, told Susan that in the diplomatic service, it wasn’t conviction that mattered,  it was behaviour and conformity, being able to strike deals with people even when you didn’t believe what they were doing was right.  The British, he said, led the world in diplomacy.    

But Susan was such a liability as a diplomat’s wife.  Deprived of adventure, she became bored and dangerous and could easily spin out of control.  She hated being pinned down, controlled.  She needed the adrenaline rush, the excitement of a one night stand, the joy of shocking people, the risk of flouting convention.  She could not live in the rigid society she found herself in.  She never wanted to be married but was quite willing to invite a stranger to be father her child, but when he became possessive, she loaded her pistol and fired at him.  Raymond  was devoted to her, but she set about destroying his carefully ordered life. 

Was she mad?   Well, she was impulsive,  incompletely socialised and at times out of control.  She  didn’t fit in, she needed the freedom to express herself.  But she wasn’t deluded;  she appeared more aware of what was going on than those around her, only they didn’t dare to speak their minds.  Her analysis of the Suez fiasco was penetrating and accurate and had the power to shock and embarrass.  Her assertion that the foreign office was sidelining Raymond was absolutely correct.   Even her assessment of their marriage was devastating in its truth.  But Susan dared to say what others only thought and therefore she had to be suppressed.   Her behaviour could not be tolerated. 

We are not told why Susan had such a desperate need for thrills and excitement, why normal conventions bored her to destruction, why she said what she thought.  Was her psychic development forged by a parent, probably her father, who excited her with thrills and indulged her sense of adventure, but never wished to rein her in?   Did she spend her life seeking for that father; what he represented?  Was that her blessing  ….. and her tragedy?   

‘Plenty’  (1985) by David Hare, starred Meryl Streep, Charles Dance, Tracey Ullman, Ian McKellen,Sam Neill, Sting and John Geilgud.   The play was part of the recent David Hare season at the Crucible but I had missed it. 


Was there ever a more thrilling ensemble?   

The wild whoops and daring dives not of the solo violin,

But the rolling tumbling, death defying  lapwings. 

The woodwind section, a haunting of curlew,

their querulous ascent and curdling decline, 

 a wild race of  whistling oystercatchers,     

the redshank that pipes and dips from the wall.  

The choir, an alchemy  of plaintive plover,

banking  gold and white and back to gold again,  

 the skylarks locked in their trilling elevators

and the paragliding squeaking of pipits,

the brass is the honking  pairs of greylag  geese on morning  patrol,

percussion, the  humming, thrumming, drumming of roller coaster snipe. 

All this, while wheatears, that slate and primrose spring  

take silent  ownership  of cup and ring.    

There was a kind of magic that earlier spring, under the Quantock ridge, where Hope Corner Lane crossed the Kingston Road.

 If we left home early in the half light, before breakfast, the white owl would still be ghosting alongside the hedgerows on silent wings to take a last late vole to the shadow of the barn.   And  there in the garden of the big house, behind the wall, a fairy woodpecker, red head and ladder back would be fidgeting his way up the tall trees.  

Alas, the house has been demolished;  the barns pulled down, the birds gone, even the chinking of Corn Buntings in the fields.  The spectral owl still hunts in the wildernesses,  but the fairy woodpecker is a figment, an image torn from a book, a trace in the memory.     

Fifty three more springs have passed.  And then on Thursday,  lying in sharvasana  (the corpse posture) under the tall beeches on the Tumps,  I heard a soft regular tapping, more like a snore or the purr of a contented cat, and a high pitched call repeated three times.   I opened my eyes and caught a flutter as a tiny bird, no bigger than a sparrow but more fragile, moved to another dead limb and rattled a different pitch.  I focussed; the same white stripes, the red cap, the cheek patches and I believed in miracles.

The Lesser Spotted Woodpecker has declined by more than 90% in the last fifty years in the UK and cross Europe.  There are now fewer than  2000 pairs left in Britain.  At least two pairs are present amid the deer and open woodland in Chatsworth Park. The British Trust for Ornithology identifies the possible reasons for its decline as competition with and predation by Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and reductions in small-diameter dead wood suitable for foraging, while the species’ large home ranges suggest that landscape-scale changes in woodland (loss of mature broadleaved woodland, losses of non-woodland trees such as elms, and woodland fragmentation) may also be important (Fuller et al. 2005).

Why do we trust some people and not others?  Why do we admire some people?   Why do some people make us uncomfortable?  Is it because they remind us of significant figures in our lives; our mother, our father, a brother or sister, a lover, a husband, wife, a teacher?   Are they suitable objects for our projections?  

Projection is a ubiquitous feature of human nature.  It is the cornerstone of evolution; what makes us human; the effect of an opposable thumb.  As soon as we could throw, we could make things happen; we could control the future (see  Projection, the missile of evolution. December 24th, 2010), but this required us to perform the mental trick of imagination; to think the way things might be, to make believe. 

Psychological  projection performs that same mental trick, it transfers what we feel onto somebody else, to imagine it is they who have those some feelings and attitudes.  So we protect ourselves from  psychic damage by projecting the bad stuff onto  those we recognise already possess some of the characteristics we want to get rid of.  ‘She’s just so selfish.’  ‘I can’t trust him’.   He’s so lazy, careless, unreliable, fussy, messy.   This happens  all the time.  Just listen to how ‘a gossip of girls’ on the train criticise absent ‘friends’.  Look at how politicians try to achieve a semblance of dominance and control by rubbishing their competitors; how newspapers take hold of that and amplify it.  But it’s not just bad stuff.  Idealisation is a kind of projection.  When we admire somebody, respect somebody, fall in love with somebody, we transfer our wishes for how would like to be onto that person.  They become a mentor, a role model, an object of desire.  

Projection starts, like everything else, in childhood.   Children deal with uncomfortable feelings like fear and anger by externalising them.  First identify your enemy, locate all the bad stuff into them and then you can justify an attack.  Or identify the one you admire, locate all your wishes in that person and make them your best friend.  Projection is a mental trick.  There are goodies and baddies; in my childhood these were cowboys and Indians; the English and the Germans.  How differently you see things as you grow up.   Maturity is a state of recognising the bad feelings, taking them back and containing them, realising that what we criticise in other people is also part of us, accepting our essential humanity.    

Groups, organisations, institutions, governments, states, do it all the time.  They are pathologically split; they operate at a very childlike manner and project all their own concealed characteristics, especially the bad ones like unreliability, inadequacy, lack of sophistication, to say nothing of selfishness and ruthlessness onto  their competitors.  Colonel Gadaffi is currently the embodiment of all evil though only a few years ago, he was our special friend.  But the only thing that’s changed is our own projections.   Members of an exclusive culture,  music critics, art enthusiasts, historians, theatre buffs, vintage car collectors, can tend to puff themselves up by broadcasting their lacunae of esoterica to an audience they assume knows nothing and can be diminished by their ignorance.    

But projection can only really work in society if others identify with it.  This is what the psycholanalysts (another in- group) call projective identification or to put it in everyday speak, ‘how others make us feel’.   In voodoo, pointing the bone can cause others to feel so guilty by inference whether they are or not, that they slink away and die.  They have been ostracised from the tribe; they are not worthy to belong anymore and they cannot therefore survive.  Social exclusion is a powerful force; guilt and shame, powerful identifications.  People who have done something shameful to attract the projections of others, who use it as a shield for their own shame.  And it’s always the ones with most to be ashamed of that seek out those they can offload on to.  Those who feel unhappy make those who are close to them unhappy too  

Projective identification operates in so many aspects of human behaviour.   Bullies  can’t contain their own fear, so they make others frightened of them.  Suspicious people are secretive and engender mistrust and lies.  Needy people cannot give and induce need in others.  Those who are envious put on airs and graces to try to make others envy them.  Lovers who feel insecure may do something to make their partners feel jealous.  Unhappy and lonely people make those who are close to them unhappy too because at least they are toegether in their misery.  Teachers, who are not confident,  can make their students feel stupid,  but equally the over-confident student can make a teacher defensive.  ‘You make me feel sick,  you make me so angry, you just make me depressed.’    These are all common identifications within relationships. 

Those who carry a grudge are attracted to political groups, but can be very dangerous because they can cause others to feel bad and act out.   So did Ian Brady make Myra Hindley do it.  Projective identification is never a justification in law but it happens. 

War is mutual projection as each side used propaganda to unsettle the other.  Sport is the same.  Winning the mental battle wins the war or the tennis match.  Do not flinch; maintain the upper hand.   And we the observers so want the underdog, the good guy to win, we will do all we can to inspire him with our enthusiasm.  It almost worked with Tim and we’re trying our best with Andy, the nearly men of British tennis.      

Some doctors are so anxious they can make their patients terrified.  Michael Balint, the author of ‘The Doctor, the Patient and the Illness’ recognised this.  Patients pass the anxiety of not knowing what’s wrong with them on to the doctor, so that he orders more tests in order not to appear a failure.  Or their attitude may make their doctors feel angry, depressed, tired.   Emotional transference is such a powerful phenomenon.  As a therapist, I had always marvelled at how one client could make me feel so wound up and energetic; the next so tired I could fall asleep and have actually done so, but they were lying on the couch and I was sitting behind them and they never noticed.  

Actors are masters of projection.  They tune into their audience and can make us all identify with the emotions they project.  I have had two actors in therapy.  One made me feel so angry,  I actually had chest pain and needed to ask him to leave.  The other made me feel such surges of desire and compassion, it was all I could do not to take her in my arms and love her right there and then.     

But it’s not all negative.  We can also use projection to bring out the best in people.  Look at the way babies project their hunger onto their mother, who identifies with it and feeds them.  Falling in love feeds upon itself.   We project our beliefs and feelings into those whom we love and if they love us too and are a suitable object for our projection, they identify our desire and act in a way that intensifies it. 

Lovers  give each other those  feelings of security, excitement, togetherness, they’ve been looking for all their life, but what then happens to the bad feelings?   Well, if they can never let this love become as imperfect as the rest of life, then these feelings are projected out onto others, and the exclusive couple clings together united against the world, unable to trust anybody else.   But most marriages are not like that.  They are states of mutual projection and identification, and partners try to look after their own well being  by making their partners shoulder the blame and feel bad.  You never think!  You’re totally selfish!   I just can’t rely on you.  In a way they need the other to get rid of the bad feelings.   When it works well, it’s a trade off.    One may make the other feel alive while the other projects a feeling of safety.  It works.  The problems come when one of them changes the dynamic; meets somebody else, suffers a setback that destroys their confidence,  accepts a job that satisfies their needs.     

Projective identification requires us to think.  When somebody behaves angrily or badly to us, we need to reflect on our own attitude and behaviour and the reason for it.  How did it all start?  What was the trigger, the fear?   We all have responsibility in our functioning society to bring out the best in people, the most constructive response,  but in a narcissistic, self seeking society, people all too often have to have their own way, because ‘we’re worth it’.   It may be unfashionable to say, but I do believe that we have the friends, the colleagues, the children and the relationships we deserve because we help to make them the way they are for us.

The story is as appropriate now as when Mary Shelley wrote it two hundred years ago.  The scientific genius, self obsessed and total fixated on his project, out of touch with normal human relations, creates a monster, who destroys him and everything around him.

Mary Shelley was writing during the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, when anything must have seemed possible.  Not long before, Galvani had demonstrated that electricity could make an isolated frog leg twitch and cause the muscles of a recently dead corpse to jerk as if alive.  Many believed that electricity was the life force.  Frankenstein used it to resurrect the dead and create life, but he created a monster.  Now we have discovered how to harness the enormous energy sequestered inside the atom.  Nick Deare’s revision of the Frankenstein story is being staged when the nuclear reactor at Fukishima has been critically damaged by the recent earthquake and  is in melt down, threatening the city of Tokyo.

The Bodleian library paid three million pounds for the original Shelley manuscript; not just because it is a good story, but more because as a cautionary tale, it tells us something important about the corruptible nature of human ambition. 

Frankenstein is so obsessed by his desperate need for recognition and power (and perhaps love –on a grand scale) that he neglects his friends and family, shuns human company, and like Mephistopheles, sells his soul to Satan, the fallen angel.  He has to have fresh corpses  and pays others to dig up graves to obtain them.  He produces a living creature, a man of sorts, horribly scarred and misshapen, but then abandons him to suffer the disgust, fear and hatred of society, unleashing a horrific revenge.   The monster invades Frankenstein’s house on his wedding night, rapes his bride before snapping her neck.  But still Frankenstein cannot kill his creation, the thing he loves, and  in a dramatic reversal, becomes the monsters slave, destined to follow him to the ends of the earth. They are one and the same, bound together, the man and the monster; they cannot escape what they have done.       

How often in human history have we seen men corrupted by absolute power?  Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Mobutu, Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, Mubarak, Gadaffi …. The list is endless and includes a score of dictators currently toppling like skittles throughout the middle east.  They may start as benign and well meaning but soon their personal greed and the strength they have to demonstrate and the fear they have to generate fear to remain in power,  turns them into tyrants and despots.  All leaders are at risk of this trajectory.  Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

Frankenstein had absolute power; the power over life and death.  I have known some medical scientists who have that same wild look, the same dangerous inclinations.  Society needs the focus of the genius to progress; it makes them their leaders, but within that single minded focus, as within the atom, is a dangerous energy that must be contained.  We must have checks and balances, democracy, joint responsibility, religion, and in science, peer review, open conference and grant application.   Enterprise must be rewarded but not allowed to get too powerful.  No man can be a God.   The enduring importance of the God myth for society is that it keeps any man from getting too powerful.  Only now few believe or even pretend to believe and society is exposed. 

Frankenstein projected his will into his creation, who identified with the way he was treated.  He made him the ‘monster’  he became.   So often we hear,  ‘he made me do it’.  So did Ian Brady make Myra Hindley do it?   Ultimately she was responsible, and projective identification is no excuse in law, but it’s a powerful phenomenon.   

At the end of Mary Shelley’s book, the man and creature seem to fuse and we are left wondering whether the monster was a delusion, a dissociation produced by the stress of work and isolation.  Nick Deare writes it a slightly different way.  The master becomes the slave, the scientist is the mad one.   The creature has taken over, setting up other political resonances .   This is a story with multiple layers and meanings. 

An amazing play which starts with the creature being born amid blinding electrical discharges, out of what resembles an giant amniotic sac and for fifteen minutes struggling to move, stand and walk.  The set is wonderful, Danny Boyle’s direction superb, Benedict Cumerbutch amazing as the creature.  Tomorrow he will exchange roles with Johnny Lee Miller who played Frankenstein.  Perhaps this device underscores the notion that the creature is Frankensteins alter ego. This is the hottest play in London; deservedly so.