Sean Aydon after Mary Shelley
Festival Theatre, Malvern
Two hundred years after Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, her tale of a living creature manufactured from body parts may seem too far-fetched, just as science may seem to have overtaken the science fiction of Jules Verne or H G Wells.
Then consider advances in artificial intelligence, the recent report of the world’s first eye transplant, not to mention previous uncorroborated stories of a Chinese scientist creating life in a test-tube.
But it does not need that 21st century context to make this gripping adaptation resonate with modern audiences. Sean Aydon, who also directs, has reshaped the story into a powerful allegory that questions whether scientists should be held responsible for the potential consequences of their discoveries.
The setting is a period around the time of the Second World War. Word has spread that Dr Victoria Frankenstein has created a living being and she comes under pressure from the fascist authorities to repeat the experiment, this time to produce a superman.
The message of the piece is underlined not only by the horror with which her ill-formed creature is regarded by everyone he meets, but also by Aydon specifying that Victoria’s partner, Henry, is black, and assistant Francine a person of short stature. The government agent, with her twisted theory of eugenics, turns rudely away from both.
Tension vibrates through the piece from the first hammering knocks on the door of an isolated hut to the literally electrifying moment when the cadaver is charged with life. The creature escapes, educates himself to a remarkable degree, but learns that humans are cruel and so becomes cruel himself. "You are a monster," Eleanor McLoughlin’s Frankenstein tells him. "So what does that make you?" he replies.
McLoughlin embodies the equivocal figure of the scientist obsessed by her work, potentially for human good, potentially for ill, oblivious of consequences for family or the world at large. Cameron Robertson, in prosthetics that take 90 minutes in make-up every night, gives a searing performance as the lonely creature, from his first crab-like steps to quoting words of Hamlet to express his mental torment.
Annette Hannah is impressive as Francine, a voice of conscience fronting up to Dr Frankenstein’s temptation to collaborate with a truly monstrous government, and Basienka Blake doubles up effectively both as a victim of the regime and as one of its agents. Lula Marsh as Victoria’s sister and Dale Mathurin as Henry complement a strong line-up.
Designer Nicky Bunch’s elaborate set, with lighting design by Matt Haskins, effectively represents both the clinical but rather eerie feeling of Frankenstein’s laboratory and the forest cabin at which Frankenstein arrives in search of her fugitive creation.
The current touring production concludes in Eastbourne in November and will go on the road again in the autumn of 2024. Hopefully it will still be accompanied by one of the best printed programmes I have read, which includes a reproduction of the frontispiece of the original Mary Shelley novel (which appeared without the author’s name), articles on design and make-up for the production and, most interestingly, passages from the book with their rendition into dialogue.
Reviewer: Colin Davison