Firstly, apologies that this is a very overdue review – I saw Frankenstein two weeks ago – but better late than never.
I was blown away by Danny Boyle’s version of Frankenstein for the National Theatre (with Benedict Cumberbatch as the title character and Jonny Lee Miller as the creature) and appalled by the Kenneth Branagh film, but my first encounter with this legendary story was studying the novel for my English A Level. I was blown away by Mary Shelley’s writing and her grasp of ‘unfeminine’ subject matter at such a young age.
Happily, this Royal Exchange production allows the incredible source material to come to the fore, in an adaptation by April de Angelis that is well-paced and faithful to the book. Most retellings omit the framing device, which sees Walton – a sea captain whose quest to reach the North Pole leaves his ship trapped in ice – rescue Victor Frankenstein from the polar wasteland and encourage him to tell his story. But its inclusion here means that we get a stripped back, condensed version of the core plot, narrated by Victor. It also allows parallels to be drawn between Walton and Frankenstein – both men are ambitious, pioneering and hungry for knowledge.
Walton is played by Ryan Gage, best known for his role in the BBC’s TV adaptation of The Three Musketeers as a comical, petulant Louis XIII. He is the perfect light-hearted counterpoint to Shane Zaza’s moody anti-hero, directly questioning Frankenstein, bluntly voicing his feelings and generally being an entertaining everyman.
This production delivers enough scares to satisfy the most avid Hammer Horror fan – sudden blackouts, bodies dropping from the rafters, and the truly horrifying moment when the creature slowly emerges from the pillows of the Frankensteins’ bed on their wedding night. The iconic ‘it’s alive’ scene is pleasingly old school – there are tables of surgical instruments and severed limbs, the body is lowered down on a stretcher and flashing strobe lights signify the life-giving lightning. An unnerving blackout, punctuated by Frankenstein’s panicked breathing, ends in a creepy first glimpse of the creature: standing tall on one of the tables, visible in the flickering light of a candle.
Mark Melville’s atmospheric and immersive sound design envelops the audience – even up in the second balcony – with the sound of falling rain, creaking ice and the echoing voice of the creature. It’s an even harder job to do with so little set and no scenery.
The ending of the play feels anti-climactic but that’s the nature of the book: Frankenstein dies, the creature slopes off into the distance and it’s left to Walton to piece everything together. Frankenstein’s story has been a cautionary tale against single-minded ambition and selfishness, and when put to the test by the Arctic conditions, Walton chooses to listen to and be guided by those around him. Forgetting his quest to reach the North Pole, Walton chooses safety, compassion and compromise, and turns his ship back home.