A very good fit between venue and vehicle, and between actors and adaptation, forces us to look with fresh and freshly sympathetic eyes at Frankenstein, a familiar moral fable, while leaving a resonant residue of uncomfortable thoughts for our own time about how we make our own monsters, whether by intention or accident., a familiar moral fable, while leaving a resonant residue of uncomfortable thoughts for our own time about how we make our own monsters, whether by intention or accident.
Why did you mould me, but for misery?
Since its publication in 1818, Frankenstein has been with us in one or other artistic form, often moving a long way from the themes, plot and language of Mary Shelley’s original. One of the many merits of this new production (transferring in from the Watermill Theatre) is that it takes us back firmly to the primary text, but within a setting of radical stripped down improvisation which gives ample space for the words to resonate in our imaginations, just as though we were reading the novel for ourselves for the first time.
The initial staging on the different levels of Wilton’s is stark: suspended bare light bulbs, a couple of standard lamps also with no shades, a large chest, some fire buckets, a mirror, overcoat and boots – and that is pretty much it, except for haze drifting across the stage. The two performers (George Fletcher and Rowena Lennon) gravitate around one another, with Fletcher playing both Frankenstein himself and ‘the Creature’, and Lennon acting as a Chorus supplying the minor characters and a great deal of discreet background musical and practical support.
Adaptor Tristan Bernays and director Eleanor Rhode have chosen to present the tale in a way that is both literal and suggestive. The action begins and ends with a conventional narrative voice-over but this quickly switches to visual enactment as Frankenstein’s creation jerkily comes to life in an extended sequence of acting that powerfully suggests a gradual sensory exploration and transition from the almost mechanical to the almost human. This is a most impressive opening sequence.
Then the lights go up in a real coup and the fourth wall is emphatically demolished as the audience become involved in teaching the Creature the use of language. The emphasis at this stage is very much on the innocence of Frankenstein’s creation, his search for love and affection, and the pain and rejection he experiences at the hand of the world, which is what transforms him from a trusting blank page into a monster who responds with reflexive violence. This is sensitively dramatized in the form of a series of encounters with uncomprehending humans that rely for their success on the economical expressive power of the actors interacting with the imagination of the audience rather than on any form of literalism.
As the action gathers pace and ranges further afield what comes to matter most is the fraught relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature, both graphically depicted and lucidly distinguished by Fletcher. A lot of thematic material is suddenly in play here: comparisons follow thick and fast between this tense combination and the relationship of Adam and God, father and son, appalled inventor and rejected, unloved creation. At the heart of it is a claim of personhood on the part of the monstrous that challenges who and what we think deserving of love in our own societies. We are above all invited to reflect on how far we should take responsibility for what we create in a purely instrumental fashion, and what we may owe to those dependents once they are amongst us.
While in the increasingly pacey later sections the focus is on event after event and the accumulation of horrors in a more conventionally Gothic fashion, underneath it all lies the fundamental point that a refusal of love and reciprocity is at the root of the path of disaster and the cause of the creation of a conventional monster. As the monster and his creator pursue each other around the world it is as though Shelley has anticipated the world of Peer Gynt or even later Ibsen plays where the final confrontation with fate is played out in the most remote and extreme of natural environments.
Fletcher brings an impressive technical skill to a hugely demanding double-role. Across the continuous running time of seventy minutes he manages to enact the disillusionment and panic of the enlightened inventor and the despair and pain of his creation with equal measure. It is a great feat of physique and verbal memory as well as a scorching emotional journey. In looks he is also very well cast for the role, with the kind of blocky head that immediately evokes our folk memories of the story, but also the physical grace and suppleness to transcend that stereotype and make us think anew. He is ably assisted by Lennon with a squeeze of the accordion here, an extended hand or embrace there, and some vivid evocation of the suffering of the Creature’s innocent victims.
There is an impressive sound design from David Gregory, which underscores the emotional mood of every scene without intruding or drowning out the specificity of the text. It avoids the conventional gestures of the horror movie, often associated with Frankenstein, while providing a precise sense of place and occasion where necessary. Movement director Tom Jackson Greaves has also done in good job in making use of the large spaces and multiple levels of the stage at Wilton’s even though there are only two performers to work with.
There are some points where further work would produce improvement: the acoustic peculiarities of Wilton’s mean that vocal delivery at the back of the upper stage can be less than fully audible. Both performers need to project text more deliberately in this setting. There were also points where a more varied colour palette in the lighting scheme would have enhanced the overall experience. The rich glacial blue wash for the scene in the ice cave was very suggestive, but other scenes were more monochrome than they needed to be, especially when the costumes were neutral-toned too. The geography of the novel is varied and exotic but non-literal, and therefore there should be great scope for imaginative variation in colour filters to contrast with the stark naked bulbs used elsewhere to suggest primordial fire and light.
This production of Frankenstein sees a very good fit here between venue and vehicle, and between actors and adaptation, that forces us to look with fresh and freshly sympathetic eyes at a familiar moral fable, while leaving a resonant residue of uncomfortable thoughts for our own time about how we make our own monsters, whether by intention or accident.