Review: Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House

Posted by Evan Hayles Gledhill on May 19, 2016 in Evan Hayles Gledhill, Reviews tagged with , , ,

First, a preface. The last time I voluntarily watched a full dance production, it was Edward Scissorhands, and I hated the hedges. I generally plonk myself on the sofa for The Nutcracker at Christmas just for the Cossacks, which is my favourite bit. I am not a traditional dance fan; I tend to only watch a story I have a narrative interest in, otherwise I cherry pick sequences to be enthralled by the marvellous grace and athleticism of the dance. So, this is not a ballet review, it’s a Frankenstein review.

I saw the new Liam Scarlett production in the cinema, as I missed out on affordable tickets to the Royal Opera House itself. A review from a theatre goer will certainly be different to this one. The sound was fantastic, Lowell Liebermann’s score is beautiful, with moments of influence from the Universal monster movies, as well as an era-appropriate waltz for the wedding party. The incorporation of on stage sounds, such as the slap of dropped books against the floor, is a lovely way to really weave together the action and the score. However, the director in charge of the filming got a little carried away in the second act and seemed to think he was filming a movie rather than a stage production. Theatre, and especially dance, is not designed for a series of mid-shots of the actors. Several decisions were quite disruptive to the audience’s understanding of the plot, also, not just their enjoyment of the dance and the staging; when the monster is lurking in the forest observing the Frankenstein family, the audience needs to be aware of his presence which a series of close-ups on the principles nearly prevented. However, the occasional low angle really brought out the perspective of the sets, and the slightly off kilter angles used to evoke unease.

The atmosphere created by John Macfarlane’s design of the production is wonderful. Anatomical sketches projected onto the curtain, backdrops and sets inspired by the sublime school of Romantic art, wonderful projections of rain and lightning. The colours are earthy tones in the main, which evokes the eighteenth century in which the tale is set, but also provides an harmonious background for the fleshtones and blood red of Victor’s creation and his victims. The use of rich fabric but dull colours works very well in costuming, as a sense of wealth and privilege surrounds Victor and his family, though their happiness is muted by so many deaths. The Creature’s costume is perfect, blending raw exposed wounds with the dancer’s own bare flesh. The sense of exposure is wonderfully vulnerable, and shocking. An interesting point is that light blue is used as a colour signifying love and home, with Elizabeth always dressed in blue. In the first stage productions of Frankenstein, the monster was painted blue as ‘corpse paint’ to evoke his undead status. The reversal, linking the modern creature to vibrant red in wounds, in flame, and in the clothing of his victims, foregrounds his frightening virility, and warns of danger, yet is also oddly beautiful and seductive.

Steven McRae as The Creature, Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein and Alexander Campbell as Clerval in Frankenstein. ©ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper

Now I have finished raving over the aesthetics, how about some plot?

The novel opens dramatically, in the Arctic Circle, with the promise of a strange tale to be relayed by a young adventurer. In adapting for the stage, Scarlett has quite wisely done away with the framing device of the letters, but this requires a new drama for the opening scene. Thus, young Elizabeth Lavenza (skya Powney) is rescued by the Frankenstein family from a storm, rather than simply being charmingly discovered on an Italian holiday. The relationship between young Victor (Sacha Barber) and Elizabeth is beautifully conveyed, as their younger selves interact with the principle dancers, echoing their movements. However, I felt that there was rather a lot of extraneous material surrounding older Victor’s (Federico Bonelli) leaving for University, that felt like Scarlett shoe-horning in roles for the chorus. As a result, a wonderful piece of staging after the death of Caroline, Victor’s mother, showing each family member together on stage, but separated by their grief, and a fabulously stark and well-lit funerary scene feel rushed and under-utlilised.

Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein. © ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper

The anatomy theatre set – which is the University teaching space and the ‘filthy workshop of creation’ – is an absolute triumph, detailed with excellent specimens in jars and a galvanic demonstration on a charmingly detailed corpse. This scene is where the production really feels like it gets going, as music, design, dance and character all come together in wonderful gothic (dis)harmony. The moment of creation is a glorious set piece of dance, music and special-effects. The music builds to a furious pitch, and then fades to echo a faint heart-beat as we realise: it’s alive!! Unfortunately, Bonelli is playing the role as a lost puppy – a young man who lost his mother, and just wants to bring her back. Victor’s fascination for science, his love of learning, is not conveyed which loses a key part of Shelley’s original vision. It seems an odd choice, as the use of books as signifiers of self, elsewhere in the production, is powerful: what links all the members of the Frankenstein family and Elizabeth (Laura Morera), is the exchange of books as gifts. The Creature (Steven McRea) recognises his origins in a notebook, the very one Elizabeth gave Victor before he left for his studies. This book returns in the final scene, in a moving and harrowing reversal, as the creature tries to raise his maker.

The first act ends with the creation, which is a wonderful cliff-hanger. The second act should be key to the narrative, and to Victor’s state of mind, focussing on the murder of William (Guillem Cabrera Espinach) and the false execution of Justine (Meaghan Grace Hinkis). The de Lacey family in the forest have been excised from the ballet for reasons of space, and the development of the Creature to a thinking man is thus not explicitly outlined. However, a beautiful sequence in which the Creature dances with William links back to a scene in which Justine is teaching the younger brother. The echoes of brotherhood, family, and learning by imitation are skilfully drawn together by the choreography. However, the act’s big finale – Justine’s execution – lacks emotional punch, because Victor’s reponse is missing. He is not a witness. The audience should see that he is willing to let an innocent die, rather than expose his own secret failure; the full impact on the narrative is missing.

The third act, however, is quite a triumph. As the trip to the arctic has been excised, the full confrontation occurs on the night of the wedding. The creature hiding amongst the guests, and occasionally appearing to Victor to distract him, is played magnificently. In fact, I wondered at points if Bonelli wasn’t actually too distracted and would drop Morera! The climax is an echoed pair of pas de deux: the creature and Elizabeth, and then Victor and his creature. Beautifully danced fight scenes are hard to make effective, rather than camp, but Scarlett has done wonders. Elizabeth’s fear, the Creature’s desperation, both come across so well. But what does Victor feel? We know he is sad that his friends and family are dead – but does he really see his own hand in this? Does he recognise his culpability? I am not sure Bonelli has the emotional depth here in this performance.

Steven McRae as The Creature in Frankenstein © ROH 2016. Photograph by Bill Cooper
The true star is McRae as the Creature. A wonderful performance of desperation, desire, love and fully-embodied experience. The expression of his desire for acceptance and love is achieved very well, though the limitations of length have cut most of the original narrative focused on his own experiences. There is no overt request for a wife, no second creature is made. Instead, the longing is all expressed through the Creature’s interactions with the Frankenstein family and Elizabeth. The focus on the idea of family works very well in this context.

Overall, I want to watch this beautiful creation again and again, and I want you all to have the opportunity too. It’s not perfect, but it’s Scarlett’s first full-length production, and it is wonderfully human. And Gothic! I think Mary Shelley ‘s vision has been honoured, I think she might well have enjoyed this production very much.

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