That Frankenstein should so long have outlived its creator is testament to the strange potency of Mary Shelley’s original novel. The skeleton of its myth is able to bear the weight of any number of interpretations, shifting with the spirit of its times, from the neural research of Galvani to the neural networks of Artificial Intelligence. Time and again, her creation is stitched together anew in the image of the day.

Imitating the dog‘s production, currently at Leeds Playhouse before touring further afield, brings her story closer to home, playing it out in parallel with the lives of a young couple played by Georgia-Mae Myers and Nedum Okonyia who are confronted with a positive pregnancy test and then wrestle with the consequent responsibilities.

Framed within the anachronistic analogue grey of Hayley Grindle’s set design, they share a peculiarly claustrophobic confinement, the text received in the form of a radio play, first pervading their lives then forming a counterpoint with their circumstances. Somehow, it always appears to be winter in the outside world, a near-continual blizzard of white noise crackles across the walls of their flat, a counterpart to the background thrum of a generator, punctuated when perspectives change by the static of medium wave radio being abruptly retuned.

Beneath the foreground of the new life coming between them, there is the tacit question of what it is that might be maintaining their isolation, in a sixth floor apartment in an unnamed conurbation. From their window they look down on an almost Chekhovian stranger, regarding him as though he was an extrusion from the novel, Frankenstein’s neglected creation displaced in space and time.

Photo by Ed Waring

Between them, the couple dance around a host of themes; perinatal mental health, the breakdown of the social contract, even the end of the world. However, for all that a particular conjunction when their bodies come together to suggest Frankenstein’s creation is visually arresting, the meaning of their choreography, beyond the push and pull of intimacy, is not always clear. Sometimes, moreover, it seems as though every surface is a screen. While the image of a heart beating in a bell jar beautifully evokes the melancholy eeriness of James Whale’s singular film adaptations, occasionally this works against the drama, the jostle of information akin to a computer desktop in which multiple tabs are open, crowding out what’s essential.

The production is most obviously in its element when reanimating Shelley’s novel, a challenge to which both the principles rise, doubling as its protagonists, each in turn incarnating the misery of the abandoned creation, traumatised by fearful neglect, declaiming, “Remember that I am thy creature. Misery has made me a fiend.”

By contrast, the less fantastical concerns of the present-day couple can seem less persuasive, almost as though it’s they who are the radio play, and the tragedy of Frankenstein’s creation the reality that they distantly mirror. Ironically, it is they who fail to fully come to life. Perhaps this is because the couple themselves seem less fully realised than Shelley’s vivid creations. Devoid of background or context, not even afforded names, they revert occasionally to types. With little to define them, their predicament can resist empathy, the mystery of their isolation reduced to allegory.

Their eventual resolution is in their untethering from the 19th century novel in which they have been bound, like a ship held fast by ice but, once their dance has ended and the screens have held their peace, it is the potency of Shelley’s tragedy that remains lodged in the heart. Like Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower, imitating the dog’s adaptation transmits the current of her brainchild from her time to ours, its effects undimmed by age.

To quote the scientist, from the 1931 film, “It’s alive!”

By Desmond Bullen

Main image by Ed Waring

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Frankenstein is at Leeds Playhouse until February 24, 2024. For more information, click here. For tour details, click here