As a Goth and a fan of puppetry, I found the idea of an adaptation of Frankenstein done with puppets VERY exciting. The Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein suffered from the utterly too enjoyable body of the ballet dancer cast as its monster; seriously, who could have rejected that? And of course there was the question as to how it would compare to the National Theater’s Frankenstein; of course, the National had all the budget and access to top shelf acting talent, but could a small, scrappy company with a unique approach provide new enlightenment (and enjoyment)? I was confident that neither Edward Watson (Royal Ballet) nor Benedict Cumberbatch was necessary to make this show sing, so I took my seat with confidence.
The show starts (as does the novel) in the arctic, on a boat, where Frankenstein (Ben Warwick) is found wandering the ice. The initial set up of wooden beams and rope nicely conjures the feeling of a ship, especially one that’s stuck in the frozen ice. We’re able to see the sailors (and captain) showing kindness to the stranger they’ve found – a nice set up for the themes of compassion and humanity that appear later on.
The tiny cast of five then takes us on a whirlwind tour of Frankenstein’s life – his youth as an orphan (this confused me as he was not one in the book), his youth with and developing affection for his fellow orphan Elizabeth (Lara Cowin), his friendship with Henry Clerval (Max Gallagher), and then moves on at an astonishing pace to his university studies, where his obsession with the origin of life lead him to try to create it himself by reanimating the dead. This, of course, gets us to where I wanted to be, which was watching a show integrate puppetry into a narrative.
The first sight of the monster was quite impressive, as it was most noticeably breathing and just … looking alive, and yet so clearly made. Frankenstein himself was going on about what a horror it was, but all I could think was … look! It’s quite convincingly alive! WHY AREN’T YOU PROUD OF IT??
This, of course, is the problem that leads to all of the issues of the second act, which, to not put too fine a point on it, that the monster becomes a murderer. As he tells it, it’s because “Daddy didn’t love me,” but I saw a more sinister thread: both Frankenstein and his monster showed a shocking self-centeredness and lack of empathy for others, which led to Frankenstein not really caring about the effect his actions ultimately had on others, or taking responsibility for them, and to the monster claiming he had justification for his viciousness. The two of them are equally damaged, and, again, this had some serious effects on me as an audience member, as i cared not a whit for either of them. It didn’t help that Frankenstein himself was overacting; I don’t know if it was opening night nerves or what, but I couldn’t find anything to hang my own sympathy around.
What was in its own way more frustrating, though, was the short shrift given to two of the most notable female characters in the novel – Elizabeth and the servant girl that the monster frames for murder. The servant, touchingly portrayed in the Royal Ballet version, gives a heartbreaking speech about her innocence which is completely missing from this adaptation – as well as Elizabeth talking about her desires to do something for herself (i.e. get an education). She dwindles to something less than two dimensional – she is simply a placeholder for the monster to have something to kill at the end of the play. And, worse, I neither felt bad for her nor for Frankenstein, as I felt he had no connection to her and thus had not lost anything.
Overall, this show told much of the novel and did it in a way I found beautiful to watch, but I had problems with the script that I was unable to overcome (although I found Max Gallagher charming and deliciously emotive in his many parts). Perhaps it will settle a bit, but this will not be the definitive Frankenstein for me.
(This review is for the opening night performance in London that took place on Tuesday, February 7th, 2017. It continues through Saturday the 11th then continues its tour: Malvern, Litchfield and Leeds are among its many stops.)