It has been exactly 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley‘s Gothic novel and since its publication, Frankenstein has become a cultural icon of the horror genre. Hammer Horror films and Hollywood are partly responsible for creating a cultural icon out of Shelley’s novel, distorting the story and creating a lumbering, silent, giant monster with green skin. This is what has been embedded into culture thanks to the versions we see on the cinema screen, for example, Boris Karloff’s adaptation.
In fact, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who reanimates the dead, not the monster itself. Secondly, his creation is labelled as The Creature, and is an eloquent, melancholic, lonely creature searching for companionship. He becomes educated by studying the same society which shuns him. Because of his abhorrent appearance, The Creature is subject to heart-breaking rejection from the public, and most importantly, from his creator.
For me, Frankenstein is a desperately sad story about rejection and isolation. Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of this character, in the TV series Penny Dreadful, is the closest to Shelley’s initial depiction of this Gothic character that I have seen.
The Royal Exchange Theatre’s production of Frankenstein is faithfully adapted by April de Angelis, staying true to Shelley’s novel throughout. Every scene from the novel is rendered in this production. This is particularly effective when it comes to Shelley’s narrative, which is entirely told by Victor Frankenstein to Captain Walton. Walton rescues the scientist from the frozen tundra, on a voyage to the North Pole. In this production, Captain Walton, played by the brilliantly witty Ryan Gage, stays on stage throughout the entire play, theatrically focalising the narrative from his character’s perspective.
Shane Zaza‘s performance provides a strong characterisation of Victor Frankenstein. Zaza flawlessly portrays the abhorrence, revulsion, and guilt that the scientist feels as a result of playing God and reanimating the dead. As the play progresses, Zaza perfectly gets more manic as the consequences of Victor’s actions become apparent. This matches the novel brilliantly, as Victor becomes so frantic with vengeance that people start to believe he is mad.
The risk of faithfully rendering every scene from Shelley’s novel is that the pace of the play feels rushed. This is particularly evident when The Creature tries to befriend the DeLacey family. Rather than build up this scene, making The Creature begin to hope that he can integrate into normal society, this scene is condensed to The Creature looking through the window for a short while, learning language, becoming educated, then spurred by the DeLaceys. This is a real shame as the audience never quite feels absolute sympathy for Frankenstein’s Creature, nor feel his true heartbreak of having his hopes of friendship destroyed.
Throughout this production, the Creature constantly suffers from not having enough time to gain the audience’s sympathy. The absence of poetry also added to me feeling unsympathetic towards the Creature in this production. In the novel, and in Penny Dreadful, The Creature is so eloquent that he beautifully recites Milton’s Paradise Lost and other great Romantic poetry. It gives his character heart and makes you instantly empathise with him. Poetry is the only beauty that The Creature receives. It is his retreat from the cruel world that shuns him.
All this takes nothing away from Harry Attwell‘s brilliant portrayal of Frankenstein’s Creature. Attwell’s strongly projected voice is perfectly melancholic and despairing. His appearance is older and his stature more gigantic than I was expecting. Shrouded in enormous black robes, walking with a limp, Attwell plays The Creature with a wonderful balance of despair, compassion and brutal strength.
It is just a shame that the audience are never given an opportunity to fully connect with The Creature. He is absent from the stage for the majority of the production, but the scenes where he appears are enthralling, gripping and tense. However, it is worth adding that whilst The Creature’s absence hinders the compassion I feel for the character, it adds to the tension and horror of the production. I was left on the edge of my seat, not knowing when, or where, he would appear. But personally, I always feel that Frankenstein is a desperately sad tale of rejection, loneliness and despair, rather than a scare-fest.
Johanna Town‘s sublime lighting design plays on the horror genre, scaring the audience at times and brilliantly adding to the tension by plunging the auditorium into pitch blackness. This is actually really uncomfortable as an audience member, as you have no idea what will happen next. Through the effective use of smoke, the stage is constantly foggy, giving it a haunting impression. The constant presence of Captain Wolton acts as a safety blanket. When he is taken away and the auditorium is plunged into total darkness, it is genuinely unnerving.
Town’s lighting also creates striking imagery, particularly when the entire stage is entirely lit by a single candle. Again, this plays on the Gothic theme and heightens the intensity of the play. When Frankenstein’s Creature is ‘born’, there is a wonderful mix of electric, modern, strip light bulbs, with the period setting, costumes and candles. This fusion of modern and period lighting is as inventive as Victor Frankenstein’s experiments.
Overall, this is a brilliant production and well worth watching. Frankenstein is tense, gripping and will leave you on the edge of your seat, it will frighten you and make you jump. It is just a shame that it didn’t fully leave me feeling empathy or compassion towards Frankenstein’s Creature. It didn’t leave me in tears, the way that Shelley’s novel does.