Dr Frankenstein

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, adapted by Selma Dimitrijevic

Northern Stage and Greyscale

Curve Theatre, Leicester

From 28 March 2017 to 01 April 2017

Review by Sally Jack

Casting against gender is currently something of a hot potato in theatre, and this Northern Stage and Greyscale co-production takes things in a slightly different direction: re-imagining Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein with the scientist Victor Frankenstein now a woman.

Set in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and when a woman's place was certainly not in an educational institution, this gender swap raises a new layer of questioning of long-established patriarchal practices.

Director Lorne Campbell gets the story off to a good start with mounting Gothic portent: storms, shadows, Beethoven, and a science den of shelf-upon-shelf of glass bottles and flasks. Tom Piper’s mirrored, multi-doored set, Lizzie Powell’s lighting design and Nick John Williams’s eerie sound design fuse together well.

However, as the play unfolds, other distracting questions materialise and the central premise of this production remains frustratingly underdeveloped.

Dr Victoria Frankenstein (Polly Frame) goes against her family's advice and leaves her father, also Dr Frankenstein (Donald McBride), her sister Elizabeth (Victoria Elliott), housekeeper Mary (Libby Davison) and maid Justine (Rachel Denning) for Ingolstadt to attend university and further her scientific studies.

Here she works on her technique of bringing a dead body back to life after initial success with a rabbit. Then, a cadaver jerks into life, the Creature (Ed Gaughan) is "born", he connects with Victoria then makes his escape. Overworked and feverish, Victoria is brought back home to recover by Elizabeth’s fiancé Henry (Scott Turnbull), but the Creature finds her, bringing tragedy to the Frankenstein family.

Things just seem conveniently easy for Victoria; born into a wealthy family, her father tells her, almost jokingly, “the more expensive your education, the less useful it appears to be”. And with that she leaves the family home, oblivious to all but her work thanks to the funding provided by her “disapproving” father. Fighting for her right to an education, as well as operating at the forefront of scientific discovery, is something of a damp squib here.

Frame is dynamic and charismatic as Victoria, always questioning and unshakeable in her quest to discover the secret of life. However, her singular purpose and almost casual treatment of the execution of an innocent maid and murder of her brother is difficult to accept. We are back to the “just because you can, doesn't mean you should” argument, rather than any new perspective on science and its moral dilemmas.

The other female roles are more traditional, but ultimately more rounded and believable. Davison’s Mary is more like a surrogate mother to Victoria and provides calm comfort. Denning’s portrayal of Justine’s moral dilemma and the conflict between religion and science is moving and inevitable in its stubborn denial of logic. Elliott’s Elizabeth provides a strong counterpoint to Victoria’s singleminded approach to family life.

Ed Gaughan is a creepy, sinister Creature, although he draws sympathy as he tries to make sense of his world and the reactions from those he encounters. In terms of his relationship with Victoria, she responds coldly, apparently unsure of what she has done and no real sense of any kind of bond as his 'creator'. After realisation that her experiment is doomed to failure, the Creature offers himself back to science and matters come to a rather abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion.

The fact that Victoria and her father are intellectual equals in a time of supposed enlightenment remains unexplored and any female response to the Creature and Victoria’s own situation is largely ignored. Sadly, another female opportunity passes by.