Review: Frankenstein – some beautiful parts, but not yet whole

Erin Harrington reviews Frankenstein, a co-production between The Court Theatre and the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Arts (NASDA), at The Court Theatre, Saturday 7 August 2021.

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novella Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus is a creature that refuses to die. More than two hundred years after she brought it to life, Shelley’s ‘monstrous progeny’ has left an indelible mark upon culture, acting as a provocative touchstone for the ways we think about life, creation, embodiment, identity and monstrosity.

Nick Dear’s 2011 adaptation, directed for The Court Theatre by Holly Chappell-Eason, forgoes the nested narratives of Shelley’s book, as well as many of its rich peculiarities and psychosexual layers. Its focus, instead, is a more linear story that homes in on the compelling mobius-like relationship between rogue scientist Victor Frankenstein and his experimental Creature. Some audience members may arrive familiar with the play’s conceit, as the National Theatre made their 2016 production available for streaming during the early days of international COVID lockdowns: the lead roles are double cast, parts of the same looping whole.

In this production, actors James Kupa and Wesley Dowdell play the two leads, switching characters between shows. This enriches and complicates the symbiotic relationship between characters, as well as between actor and role. The Court’s production lampshades this overtly in its opening minutes, when the pair both walk out as Frankenstein, and one is ‘chosen’ by the large ensemble (j’accuse!). On opening night it’s Dowdell’s clothes that are stripped away by the ensemble and replaced by tattered loops of fabric that crisscross his body, standing in (in lieu of makeup) for the scars and sutures that hold together his piecemeal form.

This adaptation places us firmly alongside the Creature, from its visceral, lonely birth in Frankenstein’s lab, to its rejection by its disgusted creator-father, and through its experiences with the world, the majority of which are flecked with cruelty. The Creature is not born a violent monster but becomes one in response to the ways it is brutally rejected, over and over – something directly signalled in a series of educative conversations with a kindly blind man DeLacey (Roy Snow), who it encounters in the country, beyond the threats of the city. The pair discuss whether or not we are born blank slates, the nature of good and evil and fairness, and the extent to which creators have duties and obligations to their creations. The man’s promises of welcome and safety are dashed. Later, the Creature uses its first-hand knowledge of pain to inflict it on Frankenstein by way of his family, after Frankenstein reneges on a deal to make it a mate. We follow an obsessive path from life to death and back again.

The Creature (Wesley Dowdell) and Victor Frankenstein (James Kupa); photo credit: Emma Brittenden

On opening night Dowdell gives an empathetic and layered physical performance, clearly charting the Creature’s emotional development from overwhelmed newborn naïveté to focused determination. Kupa, in turn, is cocky and arrogant. He is utterly disinterested in anything other than his hubris-driven work, including the expectations of his community and family. He rebuffs the advances of his long-suffering fiancée Elizabeth (Elisabeth Marschall, remarkably casual), who would much rather create life the old-fashioned way. I appreciate the moments where they finally come together, but wish the production would linger more on Frankenstein’s first sight of his creature, so that we could experience it with him. The original sin here is not the Creature’s profane, wonderous, and vulnerable birth, but Frankenstein’s horrifying, knee-jerk rejection of the thing he’s spent so long trying to achieve.

The pair is supported by a large cast: Snow, Marschall, Tom Eason (who also acts as movement director) and an ensemble of 15 third-year students from the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Arts (NASDA). The production augments the scripted action, which introduces us to characters from town centres and fringes, the country, a stately home on the shores of Lake Geneva, and isolated outposts, with extended sequences of physical theatre. The corps (pun intended) race across stage, combining and fragmenting and recombining, its own organic assemblage. These physical sequences are most successful when they express the Creature’s own fragmentation or sense of wonder, and when they make manifest unknowable things, not least the process of the Creature’s creation. This opening sequence is focused and sculptural, but elsewhere these sequences can be busy and distracting, often unnecessary. The conceit is consistently used but inconsistent in its dramaturgical and expressive value, and there is a lot going on that does not serve the key relationships or emotional truths of the show.

The dramatic and detailed design elements evoke the imposing castles, hidden spaces and arcane ephemera that populate Gothic literature. Harold Moot’s multi-levelled set is surfaced in a manner that provocatively recalls both crinkled parchment and the preservation of skin, which is mirrored in the wrinkled, twisted fabric of the company’s beige-toned trousers. The set is also massive, an imposing spectacle, the tallest point almost brushing the rig. One of the most striking moments of the production comes as the Creature ascends Mont Blanc then crouches, gargoyle-like, on the set’s highest point, his long flowing cloak cascading to the floor to create the planes of a wind-blasted glacier. Despite the size of the stage, though, the set divides the space into relatively tight playing spaces, which constrict movement and occasionally impede sightlines. Some sequences, including the final scene, feel squeezed out.

This compounds a key tension in the production, where business (and busyness) comes into conflict with tension and intimacy, and where artifice displaces truthfulness. The play is built around the singular push / pull between the Creature and its creator, as we move from the Creature’s lonely birth through to the final Arctic confrontation in which the two become bound in life and death.

Yet, there is little space, literally and figuratively, to explore the immensity of this relationship, including in blocking and the relationship between spatial elements. There is a flatness where complicated stage business and overtly caricatural, even camp characterisation in some supporting roles pulls focus significantly from the (in)human relationships at the play’s core. Even the evocative electronic score, at times, feels like it dictates character beats, instead of responding to them. I don’t believe in the world of the play, although perhaps this will settle as the production continues and finds a more organic sense of spontaneity.

I feel like I’m complaining, but it’s because I am a little frustrated and alienated from the production; I can see the gaps between intention, choices and outcomes. There are certainly some terrific moments in the play where the emotional core coheres with the physical, and they are worth celebrating. In the opening, as the creature is birthed, the company connects their arms together, hand to elbow, to create articulated, shadowed ripples that suggest the coming together of bone, vertebrae and cartilage; it’s striking and visceral. Later, the Creature dreams of his bride (Asuka Kubo – currently one of my favourite young performers), and they dance in a lovely, off-kilter duet that sweeps the span of the stage. The scenes in which the Creature and blind man DeLacey debate life, cosmologies, and literature are grounded and authentic, while also doing some heavy-lifting in terms of theme. So too are the moments when Frankenstein falls into himself, monomaniacally, blind to the distractions of the world, as in when he realises the potential in bringing to life a female. I am hungry for more of these moments of awe and connection, but more often I feel distracted, and that the core stakes are opaque. I want what the programme notes signal: heartache, tension, wonder and dread.

I admit it is also very hard to write about something that features the work of so many students-in-training; is this a Court production with a company of NASDA students, or a NASDA production and training opportunity brought to life through the Court? What benchmarks are we looking for in a professional production (with professional ticket prices), when only a quarter of the cast are trained and experienced professionals? What’s appropriate criticism for emerging professionals? I am not sure, but I can see that this is a production that is serving too many masters.

Having seen past Court productions where NASDA interns are given few opportunities I greatly appreciate the level of opportunity here; the fifteen young adults are an enthusiastic, high energy and integral part of the show. It’s extremely hard to get good trade experience, and it’s important to build a pipeline from training through to profession, even if some of the production’s action feels as if it is there to give them something to do.

Nonetheless, for many of the student cast members, who are close to finishing their training, there is quite a way to go in terms of vocal work, physical precision and characterisation. This includes developing a stronger awareness of what the heart of the play is, how to embody characters authentically, and where focus should lie – that is, how to understand your role as a component part of a larger organism. Altogether its a production with many compelling parts, but it’s disorganised and not yet whole.

Victor Frankenstein (Wesley Dowdell) travels from Geneva to undertake further experiments; photo credit: Emma Brittenden

Frankenstein runs at The Court Theatre until 4 September, 2021.

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