Adapted from the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley by Selma Dimitrijevic
Greyscale and Northern Stage
Northern Stage, Newcastle
In Selma Dimitrijevic’s version of Frankenstein, the eponymous doctor changes from Victor to Victoria, the sort of change which is not surprising in a production from Greyscale whose aim is provoke debate about the contemporary world by, amongst other things, reimagining classics. And of course the idea of a female doctor and scientist would almost certainly have appealed to Mary Shelley whose mother was Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, an early and significant proponent of feminism.
The setting is, like the original, sometime in the eighteenth century, although this is a kind of science fiction alternate universe in which one significant factor has changed: women do go to university and can become doctors, although they are not allowed to practise. Victoria studies and experiments at the University of Ingolstadt, her interest in the border between life and death being triggered by the death of her mother a little while before.
Dimitrijevic keeps the central characters of the original but with some significant changes: Henry Clerval, for example, originally Victor’s best friend, becomes the fiancé of Victoria’s sister, the adopted Elizabeth Lavenza Frankenstein (with whom Victor fell in love in the original).
The biggest change, however, is in the Creature. Here it is not a construct, an over-sized monster built by Frankenstein, but a man brought back to life by Victoria’s experiments.
The set, by Tom Piper, is wonderful and atmospheric lighting by Lizzie Powell makes it a symphony of shadows and reflections, of dark colours, of suggestions of fire, and of dimly seen chemical (or alchemical?) flasks and bottles, making the human (and formerly human) figures seem small and enfolded in darkness.
The performances, too, are excellent, from a very strong cast. Polly Frame captures Victoria’s driven passion to defeat death while Victoria Elliott’s Elizabeth is the perfect complement—down to earth, conventional, sometimes exasperated at her sister but loving and supporting her nonetheless.
Rachel Denning gives a fine, nuanced performance as the nanny Justine Moritz, devoted to the family, willing to do much more than her duties would require but unwilling to lie, even to save her own life. Ed Gaughan, in a part which, thanks to Hollywood and Hammer, has become a cliché, gives the Creature real humanity, while we remain acutely aware of his unnaturalness (as does he), and there is excellent support from Libby Davison (Mary, the servant), Donald McBride (the father, another Dr Frankenstein) and Scott Turnbull (Henry Clerval).
And the play itself? Although not a stage version of the original novel, it does have the feeling of being a novel put on the stage. Reading a novel is a slower and more contemplative business that watching a play and this did feel slow. There were times, too, when I felt a little unsure about how much time had passed since the last scene—a day, a month or months, a year, longer? And although there were strong emotions, there was little tension for there was little variation in pace.
A final, possibly very minor, point: I confess I get irritated when, in a play set in the eighteenth century, people say things like “Hi” or “It’ll be fine.” Yes, it is undoubtedly a minor point, I know, but a carefully created historical atmosphere can be so easily disrupted, even if only momentarily, by the intrusion of modern colloquialisms. But perhaps that’s just me.