It was always going to be difficult to revive a play that was performed so well and so recently at the National Theatre. Director Fred Wienand and the team behind Frankenstein faced a challenge bringing a fresh take to a show that I saw as near perfect in 2011.
I’m not sure what a seemingly arbitrary shift to an “alternate reality” in 1929 added to the play. There was an update of costumes, a vaguely and perhaps generically dystopian set design, and “war” as a buzzword scattered emphatically throughout. Actually, that shift only became clear to me looking retrospectively at a series of trailers published before the show. So the brilliance of a production that marketed itself as a reinvention, was shadowed just a little, by how exactly it seemed to imitate its predecessor.
But if things tended to feel replicated, then it was a replica pulled off with immense skill. Shelley’s classic text was brought to vivid life: the story of Frankenstein, a tortured scientist and his troubled half-human creation is told in an adaptation by Nick Dear that is by turns harrowing, comic, and deeply sad. I enjoyed the room Dear’s script allows for moments of humour we don’t associate with the gothic tale, and Wienand was obviously attuned to that.
Ensemble work and a series of choreographed lifts in the first few minutes made for an exhilarating opening, and a dance sequence between Shelley’s two creatures was just beautiful. In fact, the whole production felt tightly orchestrated; credit must go to Movement Director, Pete Sayer, for that. Actors seemed aware at all times of their bodies and there was no one who began to lapse into twitchiness.
At this point, it would be impossible not to commend Seamus Lavan for his monumental effort as Frankenstein’s monster. Seated in the round, Frankenstein’s audience gets close view of how physically demanding this role is: we watched the creature’s muscles tighten in its first physical sequence and then sustain this tension through a whole two hours of performance. Lavan did not falter. To a role that could place body language above empathy, he brought an incredible range of emotion.
Tom Curzon was a lovely counterpart as a twitchy and anxious Victor Frankenstein. Again, acute attention has obviously been paid to their mirroring physically. Posture and arm movements are subtly made to match and then increased through the piece. It was nice to see this culminate in time with Frankenstein’s condemnation by his new wife: “you are monstrous!”
But this is evidently a talented cast across the board. Even in their smaller parts, Imo Allen (as De Lacey) and Rosa Garland (Madam Frankenstein) impressed me; both proving themselves more than able to prise something subtle from relatively few lines. What comes across throughout Frankenstein, is a willingness in acting and direction alike, to put effort into to detail, and that is something that’s hard to pull off.