Writer: Mary Shelley
Adaptor: April De Angelis
Director: Matthew Xia
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Marking 200 years since the publication of the ground-breaking novel, The Royal Exchange Theatre offer us a new adaptation of the Frankenstein story. The anniversary is excuse enough, if one were needed, to refresh our fascination for a story which has seemed to speak to every generation since it fell from the pen of the teenage Mary Shelley.
Director Matthew Xia contends in his programme notes that the play “is often remounted in times of global crisis”. Which just goes to demonstrate how frequently such crises re-occur. Danny Boyle’s 2011 Royal National Theatre staging, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the lead roles, is still raw in the memory, and since then there have been Trump, Brexit, Syria, Bitcoin, and the Rohingya refugees.
This 2018 re-imagining attempts to keep faith with the original narrative: A maritime scientific expedition to the North Pole becomes locked in the arctic ice, fear and famine threaten the good order of the vessel, and the ship’s captain, Walton, feels homesick and friendless. His letters to his beloved sister Margaret carry the burden of the story he recounts. Not of his own exploits, but the harrowing tale told by the scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who is rescued from the frozen wastes. Frankenstein’s pursuit of re-animation has given life to a creature which the scientist regards as a hideous corruption of humanity rather than its epitome. The Creature has fled its creator, and exacts a vicious revenge on his family, his friends, and on the wider society which will not treat him with the dignity, respect and affection which he craves. Seeking vengeance in his turn, Frankenstein pursues the Creature to the ends of the earth.
Xia makes good use of the flexibility of the theatre space, and the technical resources available to him to create a fast-moving and inventive landscape for the development of the story. Key scenes which require a recognisable setting are provided with laboratory benches, dining tables, witness stands, four-poster beds either trolleyed or flown in with minimal disruption to the flow of the piece. But there are many points where the interaction of the characters themselves is sufficient to drive the action forward, and where scenes run seamlessly into one another.
If physical artefacts are used sparingly, a different approach is taken to sound and lighting, both of which play significant parts in bringing atmosphere to the production. Johanna Town’s lighting design was always effective, and occasionally electrifying. The same is partly true of the sound landscape created by Mark Melville; at times it brought helpful sonic light and shade to scenes, but it was so much a constant presence that its impact was diluted, like Muzak in supermarkets. Used with more discretion, its impact might have been more powerful.
There is a cameo role for a puppet, representing Frankenstein’s young brother, William, who becomes one of the first victims of the Creature. Performance in-the-round creates special difficulties for puppetry, limiting sight lines and hobbling the suspension of disbelief. Sadly, the Royal Exchange fails to overcome these limitations, draining the scene of any poignancy it might have held.
Apart from the central characters of Frankenstein, Walton and the Creature, all cast members are required to double or treble up to cover the remaining parts in the drama. They all do so with skill and subtlety, in particular Colin Ryan as both the bumbling best friend Henry Clerval, and the merciless prosecutor of the hapless Justine. Shane Zaza as Frankenstein conveys the torment of the over-reaching scientist with considerable conviction, becoming increasingly distraught as his life and work unravel into tragedy. Neither Ryan Gage as Walton, or Harry Attwell as the Creature have the same scope for character development, but Attwell makes a valiant attempt to elicit sympathy for the doomed experimental human, despite the atrocities mounting up around him.
While there are praiseworthy elements to this production, it remains a curious curate’s egg of a piece. The narrative trajectory, with its epistolatory framework, and numerous flashbacks, tends to distance the audience from any immediate connection with the plight of the characters involved. The pace of the show is relentless, allowing little time to absorb the emotional impact of a scene, before another tableau is presented. This makes it unsettled, without ever being unsettling. In fact, several of the coups de theatre which decorate the show fail to make significant impact. If some of the adventurous ‘shock and awe’ effects miss their mark, even a stage littered with gory body parts fails to repel an audience more familiar with raw meat in pre-packed plastic.
Such a familiar tale may not have sufficient shock value to easily cause fright or fear, but to succeed as drama it has to engage with its audience on an emotional level. Mary Shelley’s story has so much to offer, that it challenges any production to be selective. This is a production which attempts more than it can deliver, and sadly overplays its virtues to the point where they become vices.
Runs until 14 April 2018 | Image: Johan Persson