Frankensteins

Two hundred years after writing, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein appears to be more relevant today than at any other point. We are on the verge of creating beings in our image, whether through genetics, bioengineering or Artificial Intelligence. We will face the challenge over how to control our creations, just as Frankenstein did. And in a world where we cannot find happiness, what happens when the created discover the same fate?

From the Economist (17 Feb 2018): ‘Every generation of its readers finds new allegories for the anxieties and ambitions of what they take for modernity; the monster each sees is a reflection of themselves.’

But in the tale of Frankenstein, is it the eponymous creator that is most important:

‘Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you! You have made me wretched beyond expression. You have left me no power to consider whether I am just to you, or not. Begone! relieve me from the sight of your detested form.’

Or is it the creature (from Middle English, the created)?

‘No sympathy may I ever find. When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to be participated. But now, that virtue has become to me a shadow, and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair.’

Certainly Matthew Xia‘s production at the Royal Exchange is all about the creature, expressing a wish to scare the audience. Indeed it is Harry Attwell’s astonishingly convincing performance as the misunderstood creature that stands out. Frankenstein may well be on stage for a greater part of the play, but Frankenstein lacks both an emotional journey and self reflection, therefore it is hard to empathise with his internal conflict. So it is the creature’s narrative and depth of emotion that drive this version.

Pure Expression‘s immersive performance at Manchester Central Library featured a single actor as Frankenstein wandering the rooms and corridors of the library as we followed, listening to the dialogue and soundscape on headphones. This was an impressive piece of controlled physicality by Frankenstein; his posture and movements were perfectly of their time, and we are in his head, feeling his angst and conflicting emotions. The creature appears on the headphones and adds to the story but this performance is all about Frankenstein.

In the Martha Simon/Dukes Young Actors Company  production at Lancaster Dukes it’s very much a play about both the creature and Frankenstein, acknowledging their co-dependency. There is a strong focus on how the creature learns language and empathy, and how this informs the interaction between creator and creature, how the actions of one affect the other; how they are like father and son. Frankenstein himself follows a convincing journey from obsessive scientist to being unable to handle what he has created. He retains a careful balance between knowing the effect of his creation, and not understanding what effect his behaviour has on others.

An underrated character is Elizabeth, who has the opportunity to open Frankenstein’s eyes to reality, love and his own responsibilities. In the Royal Exchange play, Elizabeth is stoical, traditional, somewhat compliant. However the Elizabeth at the Dukes is strong, modern and mocking, a woman who, given the opportunity, would have made her own scientific discoveries.

The scripts are very different.

At the Royal Exchange, April de Angelis‘ script is very true to the original text, with a focus on what is going on inside Frankenstein’s head so that the creature appears mainly in scenes of conflict and murder; the largest chunk that is omitted is the creature’s emotional development. This script had huge potential, yet it needed the role of Frankenstein to be more reflective and complex to pull this off. So in the end it is the creature that steals the show, despite the script not really being written for the creature.

Pure Expression‘s script is very brief, but condenses the story surprisingly well. All the key events and feelings are there. But it is the combination of the dialogue and the way they use the space that creates a powerful image of what is going on inside Frankenstein’s head.

The Dukes script is the Nick Dear National Theatre one from 2011 and focuses on the detailed relationship between creator and creation. We see the creature learn to speak, to write, and then to be rejected. There’s much less focus on the violence of the creature and much more about what it means to be human, to love and to be loved. And there are some clever nods to equality and science that resonate today. It feels altogether more contemporary.

What sort of world do we want to be evoked by Frankenstein on the stage?

At the Royal Exchange, the world of the story is strongly evoked by a well designed set, sound and lighting. At times the theatre becomes pitch black which creates a real sense of unease. The visceral use of bloodied body parts and the gruesome appearance of the creature give it a sinister edge.  Yes, staging superb, loved the way the round was used, and sound especially was strong. Rain and live fire both really important because they evoke the environment. It’s all on the edge of normality.

At the Library there was no set and we followed Frankenstein through public areas and private rooms. Physically this took us out of reality whilst surrounding us with people – the headphones isolated us from the general public but connected us all to each other, creating an odd feeling of ‘togetherness’ whilst being detached – seen and yet unseen, creating a sense of spectacle. There was a particularly memorable scene where we all haphazardly followed Frankenstein around a maze of tightly stacked volumes in a store room. Amazing soundscape to back this up, and song selection was also excellent.

At the Dukes, it was a very simple set, creating each scene from stepladders, depending on some really clever movement to maintain a consistent pace. The creature was malformed but not a monster, a simple but highly effective bodystocking costume. The sound design was exceptional, never intrusive but always creating the right effect. It was altogether a more thoughtful, reflective production.

And what about space to reflect?

We need quiet passages to give us space to think. The Dukes production gives us plenty, it’s a wonderfully questioning production. The library is a promenade production and we have time to think between scenes. There’s not much space to think at the Royal Exchange; it’s very full on.

So what worked best?

The creature may well offer the greater scope for spectacle, as most film versions have found, but what can that really tell us about ourselves?  Surely the point of Frankenstein is twofold. First, what responsibilities do we have if we create life beyond what we have known as human? Second, if we create a ‘shell’ for a new life, whose responsibility is it to gift emotion, knowledge and the power to love?

It is the creator Frankenstein that is the mirror we hold up to ourselves. If we want to learn the perils of our ways, we look to Frankenstein. We need to see inside his head. For me that means it is the reflective, intelligent productions that are most relevant to our lives today.

Comments drawn from the following productions:

Royal Exchange, directed by Matthew Xia, 9 March – 14 April 2018

Manchester Central Library, Pure Expression, 12 – 15 March 2018

Dukes Theatre, Lancaster, Senior Young Actors, directed by Martha Simon, 22 – 24 March 2018

Royal Exchange photo: Johan Persson

 

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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