It has been 200 years since Mary Shelley published the gothic horror of Victor Frankenstein and his infamous monster. Since then the tale has captured the imagination of people, spawning numerous film and theatre adaptations as well sending philosophers into a frenzy about the consequences of man becoming its own creator.
Royal Exchange marks the double centenary with a faithful adaptation from the hands of celebrated playwright April de Angelis. Directed by Associate Artistic Director Matthew Xia, this current production draws inspiration from Shelley’s dark psychological horror, which include on-stage depictions of murder, gore and dismembered body parts.
It’s no surprise given the material that is on offer here that Xia and his cohorts have flexed their creative muscles. The set, the lighting and the sound designer all marry those dark foreboding Frankenstein themes into a compelling composition of morose melancholy that is gripping and adds to the suspense of the piece. Indeed, it is these moments that induce moments of real tension within a surprisingly lacklustre performance from the cast.
Of course the cast are able to rise to the high dramatic points within Shelley’s celebrated novel, however, the need to try to add some frivolity to proceedings, to lighten the dark hues of this discomforting tale is where it starts to come unstuck. It’s completely jarring.
It is elements of the production therefore that take centre stage in Royal Exchange’s production that draws the plaudits. This spirit is no more typified than in Ben Stones, the play’s designer. Taking inspiration from Bernie Wrightson’s graphic novel version of Frankenstein, his set is wonderfully reminiscent of the Victorian setting to Shelley’s classic.
Stones, like many designers before him, has drawn inspiration from the Exchange’s iconic stage and auditorium:
“The proportions of the stage and proximity to the audience are perfect. It really does force you to distil a play’s meaning and mood into a strong central idea that must be able to read from every angle that the audience sees”
And he does this remarkably well, from the opening installment that has the iconic round stage adorned of ropes that transport you wholly on a makeshift ship, to the wooden floors that are used adeptly to showcase the machinations of Frankenstein’s experiments and ultimately to show off the creature.
Stones is ably supported in his cause by Johanna Town, the Lighting Designer, and Mark Melville, the Sound Designer, both of whose work on show embody that dark sombre mood that Stones has painstakingly created. It is a wonderful combination of both physical and the non physical to create that unsettling mood, through the use of fire, blood and rain – all at times illuminated to the optimal degree!
The culmination of their efforts can be seen in the creature itself. Stones and Xia wanted to try to play up to the mystique of Shelley’s infamous creature, especially given how much ingrained the monster has become in popular culture. Their approach to strip it back to the novel’s quintessential bones is one that ultimately pays off. The monster is introduced through a plethora of scenes, beginning with his birth that combines the production’s best bits, the envelopeness of darkness, the ingenuity of the set, the dramatic mood music, all leading to a wonderful crescendo.
Indeed, the play’s redeeming feature is the creature itself, played to the hilt by Harry Atwell, it is a compelling and noteworthy performance, one that matches Xia’s subtle direction and Stones’ gothic visioning. As the production gorily continues, we see the grotesque character of the creature through its layers of complicated traits as well as its physical attributes.
Verdict: A faithful retelling of Mary Shelley’s celebrated gothic horror, that creates a tense and compelling production through some clever design, a bit of darkness and a touch of eerie mood music.