Royal Exchange, Manchester.
13 March 2018.
Matthew Xia’s production of Frankenstein resists the schlock horror associations of popular culture, embarking instead upon a dark night of the soul. Honouring Mary Shelley’s original vision, it examines man’s often irresponsible pursuit of glory and considers how society’s cruelties can create monsters.
It’s powered by a well-developed sense of creeping dread. Ben Stones’ designs can be grisly – blood stains splatter Frankenstein’s gown, suitcases are stuffed with body parts and piles of limbs lurk beneath the floorboards. Yet fear is also fuelled by anticipation rather than what can be clearly seen. The stage is often smothered by darkness, from which muffled sounds of distress can be heard. Even Frankenstein’s Creature takes time to come in to full focus – our imaginations fed by a disembodied voice, an outline in the shadows or a faceless bulk of black rags.
Scenes have an elemental feel – thick smoke, feeble candlelight, soaking rain and crackling flames. There are some striking visual moments. Thunderbolt-shaped strips of neon carry the electric charge that jolts Frankenstein’s creation to life. A sudden downpour leaves a large circle of water centre stage for most of the play’s first half – an ever-present reminder of the pool in which the Creature heart-breakingly sees his reflection for the first time.
“What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?”, Ryan Gage’s adventurous Captain Walton proudly exclaims. When he rescues the disoriented Frankenstein (Shane Zaza) from the Arctic ice, Walton sees in him a kindred spirit, a fellow seeker of greatness. Yet Frankenstein is unable to face up to the consequences of his ambitious experiments, he regularly circuits the stage as if trapped within some hellish circle.
April De Angelis’ otherwise lucid script shackles itself to the original novel’s structure. The reliance on story-telling via repeated use of flashbacks results in things occasionally becoming overly fragmented. Xia’s decision to use a puppet to depict Victor Frankenstein’s younger brother William feels like a similar misstep, its weird wooden presence incongruous amongst all the bloody flesh.
As Frankenstein’s abandoned creation, Harry Attwell dominates the show. Xia guides our sympathies clearly in the direction of the Creature. His open curiosity about the world in which he finds himself and a desperate need to find kinship with others, confers upon him an innocent simplicity and deep vulnerability. Attwell’s performance movingly captures the pain he feels as he endures a degrading mix of prejudice, rejection and mistreatment.
This Frankenstein is a harrowing watch but not perhaps for the reasons you’d expect. Death comes often but it is mostly swift and unsensational. What gets under the skin is the merciless torment endured by a creature made monstrous by the actions of others.
Images by Johan Persson.