Frankenstein – Oxford Playhouse

Reviewer: Peter Kessler

Inspired by: Mary Shelley

Creators: Pete Brooks, Andrew Quick andSimon Wainwright

Imitating the Dog has been hooked on horror for several years.

Its Night of the Living Dead – Remix (2020) was an action-packed ode to cooperation, choreography and cinematography. Last year’s Macbeth again used experimental video techniques and attacked Shakespeare’s text like an XL Bully with a rag doll. Imitating the Dog indeed. In true canine style, it investigates texts with innocence and fascination, then tears them to shreds with joy. But unlike a dog, the attack results in something new, imaginative and wondrous to behold. And with Frankenstein, it completes its gothic horror trilogy.

Like Victor Frankenstein himself, the company is renowned for its creative use of technology. But does its inventiveness breathe life into this ancient text?

Appropriately for a story about a hybrid creature, this is a hybrid production constructed from disparate living parts. It shifts between a contemporary tale of a couple expecting a baby, pure dance segments, and a recreation of Mary Shelley’s novel, all enacted by two charismatically versatile performers, Georgia-Mae Myers and Nedum Okonyia. Myers and Okonyia are trapped in a metallic apartment like two lab rats, under the watchful gaze of screens, strip-lights and projectors hanging from above. It feels as though they are subjects of some remote, cool-minded experiment, being flung from discussions about pregnancy to the wastes of the Arctic without warning. Their bodies contort and fuse together, creating strange, monstrous shapes suggestive of the creature in the ice.

The key to this production is the connection between those two stories. As the young parents deal with their misgivings about their baby, Victor tries to destroy his own innocent but destructive offspring. Both Frankenstein and the contemporary scenario ask the same question: should we create new life?

The problem is that, from the modern parent perspective, this is a static question. Once asked, where can it go? Pregnancy is largely about waiting, and talking about what will happen, not about action. The company makes thrilling use of movement, light and visual splendour, but – in the first half at least – there’s a sense that, rather than enhancing the events on stage, the effects are disguising the fact that not a great deal is actually happening. The cycle of story, dance and apartment borders on the repetitive.

Then, in the second half, the two tales diverge. The modern couple’s story ceases to be a mere echo of Shelley’s original, and becomes a narrative in its own right. It’s no longer a one-sided game, and each side of the story casts light and shade on the other.

This production raises uncomfortable and serious issues about how much one loves one’s own creation. Is there regret? Does your own life effectively end with your child’s birth? Is creativity itself an act of self-destruction, taking life-force from the creator and placing it in their invention? These questions, which provide a thematic background to the original Frankenstein, are brought into sharp, confrontational focus in the modern setting. It’s a simultaneously sobering and thrilling experience: sobering because of the emotional honesty, and thrilling because of the visual imagination on display. This is all heightened by the use of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder – ‘Songs on the Deaths of Children’ – as the mournful, musical bridge connecting old and new.

Imitating the Dog’s directors, Andrew Quick, Pete Brooks and Simon Wainwright, have all become parents over the last 15 years (and on a practical note, with only two actors and three directors, rehearsals must have been quite intimidating experiences for Myers and Okonyia). This show’s focus on the obligation and terror induced by love and responsibility for children reflects a deepening maturity in their theatrical style. That maturity has led to a more contemplative, lyrical and mournful piece than their previous outings. It may not be quite so much fun as Night of the Living Dead, but, like Dr Frankenstein himself, it cuts deep.

Runs until 24 February 2024 and on tour

The Reviews Hub Score

A lyrical mood piece

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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