Mary Shelley, adapted by Sean Aydon
Exeter Northcott Theatre
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, written in 1818, explored the ethical concerns of scientific ambition and man’s responsibility for its progress. In the Gothic original, Shelley depicts the obsessive ambition of Dr Frankenstein to create a being in human form and the consequences this creation has on its creator and society.
The production opens with a frantic Frankenstein finding refuge from the stormy wilderness in a bare hut in the care of a lone hunter. As the rough, naked wood hut walls pull back to reveal an early 20th century laboratory, complete with specimen cabinets and dominated by a huge arched window over the centre of the stage, the story Frankenstein starts to tell to the stranger is played out before us.
The first half of the evening is somewhat disorientating and certainly slow. We are introduced to a gender-swapped Victoria Frankenstein, which is left unexplained, and the skin colour of her companion, Henry, is addressed in a throwaway remark, making both these innovations irrelevant. The dwarfism of Frankenstein’s assistant has poignant relevance when she provokes Frankenstein to acknowledge if she would indeed be allowed to exist as part of the Doctor’s experiments—but this point only gets made in the second half.
Writer and director Aydon needs to take some hard decisions and a sharp knife to bring the first half to life. Watching the cast run through repetitive scientific procedures on stage was prolonged and turgid. The pace is so slow it is almost like watching events in real time. It even seems to take an age for the creature to finally come to life, only to then rush off the stage as the curtains come down for the interval.
As the second half gets underway, the play starts to get much more compelling, which is great because Aydon has pertinent points to make. Shelley warned us of the consequences of scientific progress in the 19th century; Séan Aydon’s 2023 adaptation imaginatively places the story in Germany between the wars. It is impossible to ignore the implications of interfering with nature and creating perfection or a super-strength army and the ominous associations with ‘the final solution’ and the promotion of the Aryan race.
Cameron Robertson (once we get to see him) gives an immensely physical and visceral performance as the creature, managing perfectly the balance of intelligence and threat of violence in the creature and a corresponding feeling of empathy, repulsion and danger in the audience. Prosthetics often get overlooked, but Missy Brazier should get a mention here. Eleanor McLoughlin as the Doctor also puts in a good performance. Annette Hannah, as the assistant, in her professional stage debut, makes the powerful challenge to Frankenstein.
Set designer Nicky Bunch creates a magnificent, huge gothic laboratory space on which much of the action is placed, rotating specimen cabinets and collapsing the set as the action returns to the desolate landscape for the finale, supplemented by Eammon O’Dwyer's compositions.
Once we get to the second half and it becomes clear what is Aydon is up to, the production does finally come alive, but it is a long wait. It is astounding to think how the foresight of an 18-year-old at the beginning of the 19th century still resonates today. As medical improvements bring the introduction of gene editing and advancements in AI, it is important to keep asking ourselves the same questions.
Reviewer: Joan Phillips