“If I cannot inspire love, I will inspire fear”
Matthew Xia’s Frankenstein is a true celebration of this classic gothic horror story. It revels in the dark and gruesome aspects of the narrative and clearly intends it to be a play which (as Victor Frankenstein says to Captain Walton) “will harrow you”. However, April de Angelis’s adaptation also seeks to do justice to the complexity and richness of Mary Shelley’s text, very effectively highlighting the theme of male hubris and presenting us with a monster which, for all its looming menace and relentless brutality, nevertheless elicits the audience’s understanding and even sympathy.
Closely following the original, the bulk of the narrative emerges from flashbacks, arising from a conversation between Victor Frankenstein and Captain Walton. Xia’s direction emphasises the psychological similarities between these two men – both glory-seekers, contemptuous of the needs and entreaties of those around them. Walton remains onstage throughout, sometimes seated, observing the flashbacks and occasionally interjecting comments. This device very effectively creates a continuity and flow to the action, in which past and present merge and overlap, and is reinforced by the multi-roling of the actors themselves.
Central to the impact of the story is Ben Stones’ atmospheric design, ably supported by a haunting soundscape (Mark Melville) and intricate lighting (Johanna Town). From the first scene in which the deck of Walton’s stranded ship is evoked by massive ropes slung from the roof across the stage, the design appears both ambitious and minimalist. Frankenstein’s laboratory and grisly operating table, a courtroom, gallows, rustic cottage furniture and four poster bed all glide in and out of the space seamlessly, providing the requisite contextual clues and yet signalling the scene changes with such fluidity that the pace of the narrative is perfectly sustained.
And then, of course, there’s the monster. We meet him first through his voice, which is amplified to echo around the space so that its origin is unclear. It is an eerie introduction and the tension is maintained by enveloping him in rags so that it is quite a long time before we actually see his disfigured face and body. Harry Attwell’s powerful portrayal is anguished and fearsome in equal measure, conveying the sense of a monster that is as much victim as perpetrator. And there are moments of classic horror; indeed, his appearance on Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding night might send a few audience members scurrying home to do a thorough check of their bedrooms…
More puzzling, however, is the decision to use a puppet to represent Victor’s young brother, William. In an otherwise historically grounded, naturalistic production, the appearance of this puppet feels strangely dissonant and has the effect of jolting me out of the story. And, crucially, it neutralises the emotional impact of William’s tragic death – a key moment in the story.
Indeed, it is the emotional dimension of Frankenstein that I find unsatisfying. The commitment to render a faithful adaptation results in dialogue and monologues which sometimes feel cumbersome and repetitive and make it difficult to engage with the characters, their relationships and their fates. The monster is the exception – though, even here, the extended histrionics eventually lose their impact.
There is much to be admired in this production; it offers genuine theatrical spectacle and the opportunity to be reminded of this truly great story and its timeless themes. However, ultimately it fails to connect, and I find myself surprisingly unmoved.
Photograph: Johan Persson