Séan Aydon after Mary Shelley
York Theatre Royal
Those familiar only with the various cultural echoes of the Frankenstein story—big, besuited, lumbering green monster with bolts sticking out of its neck, etc—may, like me, find themselves surprised by the nuanced, humane and haunting Mary Shelley original. This new adaptation does a superb job of straddling fidelity and invention. Like in Shelley’s novel, writer / director Séan Aydon humanises the Creature in an even-handed treatment, digging into the psyches of all of the central characters. This believable Creature is surprised at its own strength, and winds up killing through clumsiness, not vengeance or spite.
Like in the novel, the story unfolds from a perspective after the main drama has taken place. In an opening scene that leans into isolation and silence, we’re introduced to Dr Frankenstein, who is here a woman, Victoria (Eleanor McLoughlin). She stumbles across the Captain (Basienka Blake), here a suspicious Polish refugee from a war playing out in the distance, in a remote hut sheltering from the Siberian blizzard outside.
Again, following the novel, the Captain rescues Victoria, offering her a place to rest and gather her strength. In exchange, Victoria recounts the tale of how she came to be here: pursuit of the monstrous outcome of her experiments.
It’s a neat adaptation of Shelley’s own framing device, leading us into the main narrative strongly in a production that permits silence and atmospherics, often prioritising them over shock effects or rapid action. Aydon, who also directs, offers a masterclass in taking the spirit of the original and expanding that into theatrical form. The show also nips along at a pleasing pace, especially in the second half, despite the aforementioned room for scene-setting and silence.
It helps, too, that designer Nicky Bunch, lighting designer Matt Haskins and costume supervisor Alice Carroll have created a realist but flexible setting which evokes an era of rapid scientific discovery (and fewer ethical qualms). A large, looming window is suggestive of a time at which new scientific frontiers were attacked: the Wild West of biology. While the setting (in terms of time and place) is never explicitly nailed down, it seems the production has opted for an updating of the original to sometime in the early twentieth century, with war on the horizon. This brings the story closer to home, while retaining a sense of distance from the present.
Through this distance, we might see current concerns and prejudices refracted. The production multiplies the novel’s questions about the way society excises those who do not conform to the majority. Victoria’s assistant, Francine (Annette Hannah), in this version had been found abandoned as a child of unknown parentage, shunned by all others but taken in unquestioningly by the doctor. When a rich benefactor, Richter, comes calling, she disdainfully refuses Francine’s hand of welcome, ignorant to the capable young woman in front of her and seeing only Francine’s restricted growth. There are also suggestions of Richter’s disapproval at Victoria’s relationship with a fellow scientist, Henry (Dale Mathurin), due (it is implied) to the colour of his skin.
These relationships, as well as that of Victoria with her long-absent sister Elizabeth (Lula Marsh), are at the heart of the story. As Victoria, Eleanor McLoughlin brings a real humanity, passion, and strength. She balances intense scientific curiosity with softer elements which cohere into a powerful central performance—McLoughlin is superb.
The relationships with the two women in Victoria’s life are also strongly portrayed, and both Hannah and the possibly slightly underused Marsh play with real conviction and warmth. Mathurin, as Henry, is somewhat encumbered by having to carry some of the more awkward ‘comic relief’—required to play the bumbling suitor rather too heavily—but he too is a likeable and compelling stage presence. Basienka Blake multiroles well, transforming her deportment (and accent) between the steely Polish captain and the power-hungry and dislikeable Richter.
Speaking of transformations, Cameron Robertson plays the Creature with great control and empathy. Transfigured not only by effective prosthetics but also an eerie physicality, he manages to evoke more sympathy than terror. While the production has one really effective jump scare, the other moments involving stabs of music and lighting are made effective thanks to Robertson’s physical commitment rather than any real shock.
While we don’t see much of the Creature until the second act (a real contrast with many famous versions), the several set-piece discussions between Victoria and her creation lead to the most powerful moments of this relatively traditional, relatively faithful and very much worthwhile adaptation.
Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith