By Charlotte Thompson
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is undoubtedly one of the most widely re-worked, re-told and re-invented stories ever written. The image of the gruesome green creature with bolts driven through its neck permeates pop culture at every turn, and especially with Halloween less than two weeks away it can be difficult to reject this image and remember the original tale – a moving story about the danger of ambition and the relationship between creature and creator.
The live stage production of Frankenstein I was fortunate enough to witness in Durham’s Gala Theatre was produced by the company Blackeyed Theatre and adapted for stage by John Ginman. I was honestly quite apprehensive about seeing a contemporary production of this play, particularly because the trailer made it apparent that the Creature would not be played by an actor, but instead physicalized by a puppet. Having studied the original novel I felt strongly about the role of the Creature and was worried that the use of a puppet would dehumanise the Creature. This could make Frankenstein’s rejection seem acceptable, when in fact Frankenstein’s creation is composed of human parts, with thoughts and feelings not dissimilar to our own.
However the cast soon made it clear that this was not the case. The puppet of the Creature was designed by the extremely talented Yvonne Stone (whose theatrical credits include The Lion King, His Dark Materials, The Gruffalo and the famous National Theatre’s War Horse) and in such a way that the stature and features were the perfect balance of human and other, and allowed such a high level of expression that the audience couldn’t help but feel immense sympathy for the Creature in its appeal to its Creator crying out, “you made me ugly”. I loved that the script still made clear the link to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the Creature saying that he “ought to be thy Adam” but finds himself “more like Satan” as he has been kicked from Heaven and rejected by his Creator, compounding this upsetting scene with “but even Satan had friends.” This appeal from the Creature was truly moving for the whole audience and forced them to question whether or not we perceive Frankenstein as the protagonist.
As three people were required to control the immense Creature the highly talented cast of only five were continually switching out of their character roles and interchanging between actor, puppeteer, musician and stagehand. The cast managed to create such fluid and life-like movements of the Creature, and combined with the incredible voice of Louis Labovitch, you quickly stopped noticing the figures behind and became fully immersed in the vision of the Creature. Whilst Labovitch was saying the Creature’s lines the other two cast members controlling the puppet were always engaged vocally in enhancing the illusion of the Creature, whether it was simply breathing, crying, growling and panting – these layers of sound made an astounding impact.
Labovitch’s vocal work was a highlight of the production for me with his slow and steady projection making the audience practically hear the Creature’s brain whirring round searching for the correct words and understand the effort it takes the Creature to create the correct mouth shapes for speech. This vocal element worked powerfully to remind the audience that this Creature is but a few years old, and has had to learn this language himself.
The Creature’s voice worked effectively, juxtaposing violently with Ben Warwick’s continually strong and loud performance as Victor Frankenstein, which ruled the first half of the play. This at times left me feeling as though the First Act sat very much at one level aurally and emotionally. There was little diversity even in moments of tenderness. The continual bold projection and franticness of movement felt almost pantomimic, and for me tarred the supposed shock reveal of the Creature’s body, as there was no change in pace to build tension. However of course I must commend Warwick’s performance here as this did of course reflect powerfully the true nature of Victor Frankenstein. He is, in the novel at least, described very much as a frenzied man, who is very dismissive of emotion, solitary in nature, and engrossed in his work, which was conveyed very powerfully through Warwick’s portrayal and the production as a whole. However, the role of Henry Clerval (Max Gallagher) did offer these more tender, emotional moments I was searching for among the men such as the heartfelt moment where we see Clerval’s difficulty in saying farewell to Frankenstein before he leaves to Inglostadt. Gallagher’s performance was excellent in providing the light relief in his role as Frankenstein’s tutor at university, adopting a satirically pompous attitude, demonstrating his excellent abilities as an actor.
Another fantastic element I must praise in the production was the music, composed by Ron McAllister and directed by Ellie Verkerk. The talented team of five all interchanged throughout the piece taking over the role of musician when not needed in the scene, using the equipment on stage – a lovely addition – an even in the scenes at time with Cowin, Gallagher and Ashley Sean-Cook (who also played Robert Walton) taking on the role of the family and singing along to the accordion.
For such a small cast they were overwhelmingly mighty and multi-talented. The team worked together well, interchanging between acting roles and other production roles fluidly and efficiently so that it was barely noticeable to the audience, with impeccable coordination and timing. The team put on a spectacularly challenging and innovative contemporary production, and powerfully conveyed Shelley’s age-old message of the dangers of ambition, and raised the questions of ‘What happens when man attempts to defy God and become a Creator in his own right?’
If anyone is fortunate enough to see this production it is not to be missed!
Photo credit: Blackeyed Theatre