Pros: An inventive and intelligent approach to a classic text.
Cons: Some characters are not as developed as others.
You have to be careful with the classics. Adapting a well-known novel for another medium risks attracting the critical eye and disapproval of the original work’s admirers. Frequently-adapted stories also carry the burden of being compared to previous versions. There have been innumerable Frankensteins on stage and screen since Mary Shelley’s novel was published in 1818, from the first theatrical version in 1823 to Nick Dear’s lacklustre adaptation for Danny Boyle at the National Theatre in 2011. How does writer/director Ross McGregor’s new interpretation rank among its army of predecessors?
The strongest asset of this Frankenstein is the freshness of the adaptation. McGregor has returned to the original novel and produced a script that disregards the cultural clutter of other attempts. It’s a highly intelligent response to Shelley’s narrative: faithful but not slavishly so, preserving the philosophical heart of the novel, honouring the iconic thrills of the story, and introducing a significant biographical counterpoint to the main subject.
As well as recounting the tale of Victor Frankenstein’s ill-conceived ambition to create life, and the monstrous/pitiable creature that results, McGregor devotes large parts of his script to the family life of Cornelia Baumann’s Mary Godwin (as was) and her sisters, and the effect on them of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (Oliver Brassell) arrival. The tumultuous relationships within the group, Mary’s literary ambitions, and the tragic deaths of her and Shelley’s children attain as much significance as Frankenstein’s story. Although the links between the two narratives aren’t very clearly demonstrated, Mary’s affair with Shelley is fascinating in its own right.
Not all the characterisation is as deftly handled as Mary and her siblings. Victor Frankenstein (Christopher Tester) is given little to do apart from obsess about his experiments, so when he and his long-suffering love Elizabeth (Victoria Llewellyn) finally get together there’s ironically not a spark between them. More effective is Zoe Dales as blind Agatha, who teaches the creature to speak. This part is usually an old man, and re-imagining it in this way is a smart move that breathes new life into one of the most interesting relationships in the play.
Of course, we expect a decent dose of thrills and chills from Frankenstein, and the production duly obliges, with fantastic music, classic thunderclaps and some extraordinary stage craft on display at key moments.
Although this is a very professional and intellectually rigorous show, I wasn’t sure about how it presents the creature, skilfully performed as he is by Will Pinchin. McGregor imagines him as a sort of twisted child, which is a valid reading but jars somewhat with expectations. Appearing at first as a sort of gurning hunchback, only able to grunt and laugh, it’s difficult to feel there’s much dramatic weight – or threat – to the unfortunate ‘monster’. He becomes much more convincing as the play progresses and the creature’s thirst for revenge shaves off the innocent edges of the creation.
A full-bodied show that engages for its entire duration, McGregor and his company have conjured up a very fine development of this enduring modern myth.
Written and Directed By: Ross McGregor, based on the novel by Mary Shelley
Producer: Arrows & Traps Theatre Company
Box Office: 0333 666 3366
Booking Link: http://www.brockleyjack.co.uk/portfolio/frankenstein/
Booking Until: October 21 2017