Frankenstein review at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘a faithful and atmospheric staging’
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel about the scientist who finds a way of creating life, only to be horrified by the thing he has unleashed.
Encompassing birth, death and all the stuff that makes us human, Frankenstein has been repurposed and reimagined numerous times in the last two centuries. The first stage version took place as early as 1823. You only have to look at the history of Frankenstein on screen to see that the preponderance of sequels and reboots at the moment is far from a new cinematic trend. It had already been the basis of a silent movie, before James Whale made his iconic 1931 film and its superior sequel Bride of Frankenstein. Universal, knowing it had a hot property on its hands, made several more Frankenstein movies. Albert and Costello got in on the action before Hammer got hold of it.
Few of these adaptions are particularly faithful to the original novel. They tend to cherry pick the gruesome bits. April De Angelis’ new version is notable for how closely its sticks to the source material, up to and including the slightly ponderous prologue and framing device in which an exhausted and tormented Victor Frankenstein is found wandering on the ice by arctic explorer Captain Walton, to whom he relates his story.
This faithfulness means that Matthew Xia’s production includes a number of details usually excised or ignored, but it also hampers the pacing of the piece as Victor (Shane Zaza) spends the bulk of the production relating events to Walton (Ryan Gage).
The core of the story – Victor’s creation of the creature that would come to loathe and destroy him – is cocooned in a number of narrative layers. This allows for a suggestion that the version of events we’re being told is the product of a fever-wracked brain, but this ambiguity is not fully explored.
Xia rattles through the early part of the story. Frankenstein’s mother dies from scarlet fever and he dashes of to Ingolstadt to study natural philosophy only to fall ill himself. After he recovers, his obsession with galvanism grows apace and pretty soon he’s hanging out in charnel houses, hoarding body parts under bloody sheets in his laboratory and harnessing lightening to bring an inanimate creature into being.
Ben Stones’ muted design is a study in blacks and greys with the occasional splash of red. Victor’s laboratory is full of wonderfully macabre details: organs floating in jars of murky preserving liquid, brains in basins, and amphibian limbs. Apart from a few key scenes though, the production resists gothic excess. In one of the most striking moments, lighting designer Johanna Town uses a zigzag of neon when the creature is brought to life. Xia holds back from showing us the Creature’s face, plunging the stage into blackness before the eventual reveal.
The appearance of the Creature is one of the most difficult things to get right. The image of Boris Karloff’s monster, with his neck electrodes and head flattened like the lid of a box, has embedded itself in our culture. Later versions, like Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film and Danny Boyle’s 2011 stage production for the National Theatre, have amped up the body horror, the actors’ faces distorted by stitches and staples like human patchwork quilts.
Swathed in a cloak and cowl, Harry Attwell’s Creature is not particularly hideous. With his lank hair, lopsided gait, prominent forehead ridge, and compassionate eyes, he’s half Lurch, half Igor with a dash of Peter Boyle from Young Frankenstein.
With a burst of words, De Angelis effectively captures the Creature’s first dazed sensations, his journey into sentience. But she skips over some of his later self-education, with rather jarring results. After briefly watching a blind man and his family through a window, the Creature is suddenly able to speak. He acquires a refined accent, a sizeable vocabulary and a philosophical turn of phrase.
He also learns about love and loneliness. The Creature craves affection, but is met with fear and rejection. His grief at this quickly turns into anger at the man who brought him into the world half-finished, monstrous in the eyes of society.
Certain scenes feel curiously downplayed. The moment Victor begins to construct a companion for the Creature, but pulls the plug at the last minute, is thrown away. Only towards the end, as Victor prepares to marry his beloved Elisabeth, does Xia really let rip. These scenes are tense and chilling in a way the production has not been until this point.
Zaza has a difficult job, as most of his lines take the form of narration and exposition; his character never quite comes to life. Gage too spends a lot of his time on stage silently watching events unfold. Shanaya Rafaat and Esther McAuley divvy up the women – wives, mothers, corpses-to-be – between them, but their characters are all secondary. Attwell’s Creature ends up being the most fully fleshed character on stage, but for a production that grasps the power of shadows and flickering flame to create atmosphere, the revelation of the Creature’s body is over-lit, robbing the moment of its power. He looks like he’s wearing one of Buffalo Bill’s spare skin suits.
In cleaving to Shelley’s text and its themes – intolerance, social responsibility, the giving of life and the folly of men – and dialling down the camp, Xia’s serious-minded production is never less than engaging. But it’s all a bit restrained and polite. You long for it to roar and run amuck.
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