ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE
By Mary Shelley
Adaptation by April De Angelis
Directed by Matthew Xia
Matthew Xia reanimates Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 200 years after its first publication. This new adaptation by April De Angelis sticks closely to the original text and relates the story in flashbacks as the traumatised Dr Frankenstein tells his story to the Captain of the ship which rescues him from the ice. Xia turns his focus to producing a darkly Gothic exploration of the perils of dogged human ambition at the expense of family and friends. In this visceral production he also explores the vulnerability of those seen as “Other” in this World – the abandoned, the wounded and the misunderstood. The creations that don’t conform to our perception of idealized perfection or cosy sameness.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote this extraordinary piece of literature in her late teens and was barely 20 when it was first published in January 1818. The child of the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, she had fallen in love with the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at 17. Flouting social propriety of the period she had children with him before he was free to marry her after the suicide of his first wife. Traveling in Geneva in 1816 they joined the poet Byron and together conspired to each write a ghost story. From this challenge came Frankenstein, a Gothic novel influenced by the Romantic Movement and the study of Galvanism. The themes of death and reanimation must have resonated strongly with Mary. Her own Mother had died shortly after her birth and she was to have buried two of her babies before her novel was publisher.
Opening in sheer blackness the story unfolds with Captain Walton (Ryan Gage) on stage throughout the performance as the calm and steady listener to Victor Frankenstein’s wild, frenzied story that comes to life in a series of vivid flashbacks. Trapped on his ship in the ice Walton is transfixed as audiences and readers have been for two centuries.
This storytelling honours the original book but perhaps at the cost of developing authentic and empathic relationships between the characters. The dialogue sometimes sounds ponderous and doesn’t always flow in the way natural conversation would. The scenes can appear more as static tableau scenes and therefore the power of this drama can suffer at times.
The only truly potent and memorable character on stage is the Monster. Harry Atwell looms over the rest of the cast partly due to sheer physical presence and primarily because he steals the show as this doomed, traumatised creation, abandoned and rejected like a wounded refugee from the Underworld. Atwell is all wild eyed and unkempt with more than a look of Marty Feldman, yet his sensitive nature and eagerness to learn and to love and be loved seems very much taken from the creature as portrayed in the television adaptation Penny Dreadful by Rory Kinnear.
His journey is tragic and heartrending as he starts out stammering hesitant words and twitching with movements that seem like a creature with agonising phantom limb pain as nerve endings are raw or still newly knitting together. His journey is brutal as wounded and rejected, he becomes increasingly vengeful. Yet he evolves to develop a humanity and awareness that seems greater than the men before him. His quest for knowledge and his self education are sadly not really explored in this production but the result is a fully fledged man who feels emotions and can articulate his pain. Shaped by his experiences and composed of unknown body parts he is literally Everyman.
However this production like it’s namesake is deeply flawed. The other characters never develop in a satisfactory way. Indeed some feel as wooden as the bizarre marionette used to portray William the child. This addition seems awkward and uneccessary on stage and does nothing to create the emotional potency of a child’s death. There are occasional moments where humour appears to seep in jarring the intensity. The character of Henry, Frankenstein’s friend or the introduction of The Professors creates an almost vaudeville humour that simply does not work.
Designer Ben Stones has created a set which is lush with gore and bones and limbs. Death is everywhere and escape impossible. From the trunks filled with wedding clothes or body parts to the spectacular honeymoon bed or the Frankenstein’s laboratory; detail is everything in this lavish production. The costumes are fabulous and create an almost filmic aspectic to this theatre of the grotesque.
This is visually a feast in carnage and pathos. There are some moments of real terror and genuine poignancy, yet it all feels unsatisfactory and a lost opportunity to truly chill the audience. Just as the characters are trapped on the ice, I felt trapped in my seat daring to hope but feeling ultimately doomed to disappointment.
Images by Johan Persson