“We will each write a ghost story”.
During the summer of 1816, confined in the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva, Lord Byron, John Polidori, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley had a competition to see who could write the best horror story. Little did they know, this was to become one of the greatest outpourings of gothic literature the world had ever seen. The spawning of a new horror genre, their work continues to influence popular culture today, and Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ remains one of the greatest horror stories of all time, an icon in gothic literature.
April De Angelis‘ adaptation of Mary Shelley‘s classic is brought to life by the Royal Exchange Theatre‘s Associate Artistic Director Matthew Xia, and the play is certainly a fitting tribute celebrating the publication of the novel 200 hundred years ago. Science fiction infused with elements of romanticism and enlightenment the play, fundamentally concerned with obsession, monstrosity, and the destructive nature of knowledge, is particularly powerful, and morally relevant. A darkly thrilling production, this faithful adaptation of Shelley’s classic will have the audience sitting on the edge (if not jumping out) of their seats.
Emaciated and nearly frozen, young science student Victor Frankenstein is dragged aboard the ship of Captain Walton, caught in impassable sheets of ice during a dangerous voyage bound for the North Pole. Walton nurses Frankenstein back to health, and on his recovery, he recounts the story of his extraordinary life, forming the basis for the play’s narrative. This story remains at the heart of the production, and Frankenstein’s previously guarded secrets are revealed to an unsuspecting Walton, who serves as a conduit through which the audience can listen.
Written in epistolary form, Shelley’s novel charts a fictional correspondence between its characters, and Xia’s production flawlessly maintains this technique of communication in its storytelling, and the play therefore retains the pace and texture of the novel. Walton is the first character to appear on stage, and it’s his narrative that sets the stage for Frankenstein’s tragic life story. Xia has expertly captured the art of presenting a story within a story (think Inception), and interestingly, Walton remains on stage throughout the production, a spectator alongside the audience as, figuratively in the same boat, we watch and react as one.
Ryan Gage‘s Walton immediately grips the audience with his clear delivery and obvious talent for storytelling, and his constant presence becomes a source of reassurance. At the play’s opening, he portrays a man with a burning desire to accomplish “some great purpose”, setting out to explore the North Pole in a bid to find the source of the earth’s magnetism, hoping to achieve fame. Here, we are presented with a man not unlike Frankenstein, the two characters similarly searching for the “eternal light”, whilst the passive female characters remain at home. Attempting to delve into the secrets of nature itself, their ambition unites the characters, a basis for their brief companionship. However, later serving as a foil to Frankenstein, Walton shrewdly turns back from his task, recognising the potential dangers of striving for knowledge beyond the limits of man. Gage’s Walton closes the play, acting as a final confessor for both Frankenstein and his creature, and their story is immortalised in his poignant words.
Victor Frankenstein is a man who seeks a greater understanding of the world through chemistry, developing a technique that enables him to impart life to the inanimate. Seeking the chimera that is the elixir of life, Frankenstein tirelessly strives to conquer the “irreparable evil”, death. Shane Zaza, stepping into the role of this doomed protagonist, demands both admiration and pity from his audience. Horrified by his monstrous creation, Zaza becomes something of the maniacle as the play develops, his character torn by remorse and shame. Often speaking with a rapidity, giving way to bouts of hysterics, Zaza frequently resorts to pacing the circumference of the stage, helpless in preventing his creation ruining his life. At one point, Zaza looks down to see his hands covered in blood – a symbol of the character’s guilt as the being he created bears responsibility for the deaths of his loved ones – and he struggles to wash it off in the rain that falls intermittently onto the centre of the stage. Plagued by premonitions of disaster, Zaza masterly encapsulates the idea of this once noble, cultivated mind, overcome by misfortune, and destroyed by misery. Consumed by his obsessive search for understanding, this flawed, godlike figure rebels against the laws of nature by creating a being from old body parts and scientific chemicals, animating it with a mysterious electrical spark, and is ultimately punished by his unnatural creation, a consequence of his “human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world”.
Abandoned by his creator, Harry Attwell‘s portrayal of the creature is truly stirring. A striking presence, his appearance reflects one who has been fashioned out of the fusing of body parts, with skin that barely conceals the muscle tissue and blood vessels beneath. Blinded by his grotesque appearance, society shuns the creature, forcing him into seclusion. Attwell initially communicates via a burst of short words, as he describes to Frankenstein, and therefore indirectly to the audience, the first days of his life, displaying the innocence of a newborn. However, Attwell becomes more articulate as the production progresses, demonstrating the creature’s eagerness to integrate into a society that will remain forever hostile to him. Attwell’s powerful voice reverberates around the auditorium, full of pain and suffering. A tragic Adam, bearing similarities to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the creature bemoans his condition, swearing revenge on his creator for bringing him into a world that hates him. Attwell’s sterling characterisation focuses on the turmoil of the creature, and his audience are moved with pity.
The production’s stage design, lighting and sound, courtesy of Ben Stones, Johanna Town and Mark Melville respectively, lend to the production an element of the occult, the resulting atmosphere a haunting one. From ship, to laboratory, to charnel house, the dark and sinister sets provide the perfect symbolic backdrop for this gothic play, and the recreation of bleak weather acts as a source of pathetic fallacy for the tragedy and hopelessness experienced by the main characters. When building his humanoid, Frankenstein’s laboratory is littered with all manner of curiosities – organs are suspended in jars of preserving fluid, scientific implements line the worktops, whilst the clamped limbs of amphibians are suggestive of galvanism, a topic of much interest to Shelley’s nineteenth century readers. When electricity is harnessed to animate the creature, bolts of light ricochet around the auditorium, before being transmitted down to the table upon which the creature rests, a truly electrifying moment reflecting the wonder of scientific discovery.
Hailed as a landmark work of Gothic literature, Shelley’s novel is imbued with a vitality of its own in this production, as director Xia galvanises the text with powerful life. Concerned with the relationship between creator and creation, the play portrays “the truth of the elementary principles of human nature”, and its many narrators and perspectives force the audience to ponder who the monster really is. When exploring society’s perception, and subsequent treatment of, anybody who may appear different, is it not fitting to wonder whether we are living in a society characterised by a lack of humanness?
Indeed, a play about monsters and men, this wonderfully unnerving yet touching production begs us to ask,
‘What’s the difference?’.