Staged to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s ground-breaking novel, The Royal Exchange Theatre’s production of Frankenstein offers a faithful and engaging adaptation of the classic tale.
Directed by Matthew Xia, this production focuses on the three characters of Victor Frankenstein, the Creature and Captain Walton, who’s seemingly doomed quest to locate the ‘needle of the North’ brings him face to face with Frankenstein and his creation. All three characters have been led by their ambitions to the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, and it is in the cabin of Walton’s marooned ship that Frankenstein relates his tale.
“There is plenty of gore, and at several points I clearly heard members of the audience shriek at the action on stage.”
Xia finds plenty of room alongside this meditation on the nature of ambition for several thrilling and shocking set pieces, including a gruesome hanging and a particularly effective take on the creation of the Monster. There is plenty of gore, and at several points I clearly heard members of the audience shriek at the action on stage. The play also employs a subtler type of horror, relying on atmosphere and slowing building tension, which results in an unforgettable scene set in Victor’s bedroom, which I won’t spoil here.
The production frequently uses real fire on stage, as Frankenstein lights his way around his laboratory with a flaming touch, and even opens a small hatch in the floor in order to light a fire as he pursues the Creature into the Alps (an example of the Royal Exchange’s trademark of using its stage floor in highly inventive and surprising ways). A particularly bold use of fire is when the Creature sets a wooden table alight as he burns down the house of a family which has rejected him due to his monstrous appearance. The simplest, and most effective, use of fire occurs after an extended black-out following the Creature’s ‘birth’. As Victor looks around his darkened laboratory with only the light of a single candle, the tension builds until the audience is given their first glimpse of the deformed, screaming creature. The production chooses to keep the Creature hidden in dimly lit scenes and beneath the ragged black robes he wears. This allows the audience to use their imagination to conjure the Creature’s hideous form. He is only completely revealed in the final scene, as his character is fully revealed to Captain Walton.
The adaptation by April De Angelis sticks closely to the original text, while evoking a dreamlike atmosphere as the feverish Victor relays his life story to Captain Walton. This dreamlike merging of the past and the present quickly turns into a nightmare as the Creature lashes out at his creator for rejecting him. Angelis does an excellent job of condensing the novel into the relatively short running time of two hours. However, the brisk pace can make the action difficult to follow, particularly during the scenes showing The Creature educating himself and experiencing the harsh realties of life in a world that will always reject him based on his appearance. I found myself wondering if anyone unfamiliar with the novel beyond it’s basic concept would have had a difficult time following the narrative, as the story seemed rushed in this section, depriving The Creature of some of the pathos he may have had if his backstory had been more detailed.
That’s not to say Harry Atwell’s performance as the Creature is lacking. He garners sympathy even as we witness his misdeed and remains a very physical presence despite the Creature’s limited mobility. Atwell bends and holds his limbs askew to create the impression of a body misshapen and out of proportion. His stunted speech slowly evolves into an articulate manner which even rivals that of his creator, Victor Frankenstein.
Shane Zaza’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein serves as a contrast to the Creature. Whereas the Creature grows more calm and calculated as the play progresses, Victor grows more agitated and unhinged as he bears the cost of his ambition. His clothes are reminiscent of the figure in Casper David Friedrich’s seminal Romantic painting, Wander Above a Sea of Fog. Just as this reminds the audience of the Romantic ideals embodied in Frankenstein’s quest for eternal life, it also evokes the great heights from which he will fall because of his ambition.
One downside is the odd decision to portray Frankenstein’s university tutors as comic buffoons, complete with over the top German accents (despite every other actor speaking in their natural English accents during the play) and impossibly round bellies. While their appearances are brief, they stand out in sharp contrast from the rest of the production, and I was left bewildered as to why they were depicted in such a manner. While there is certainly humour in the play, particularly in the early scenes with Captain Walton, it is of a subtler, character-based type rather than the farcical characterisation seen here.
That however, is a minor quibble in an adaptation which brings a classical, almost cliched, story to the stage in a way which feels fresh and invigorating, even at times, scary. No small feat for a story which has been as relentlessly copied and parodied in popular culture as Frankenstein has.
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