When I was 19, I opted for a Gothic Literature module as part of my English Literature degree. It was there that I first picked up a copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
I’d long been a fan of this blend of fiction and horror, but there’s something about Shelley’s Modern Prometheus that had me captivated – and utterly terrified. There are only certain works of fiction which evoke such a strong reaction (think of Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now and We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson), and it seems that I’m not the only one who is fascinated by the story of Victor Frankenstein, a young scientist who creates a grotesque but intelligent creature in a horrific scientific experiment.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, and director Matthew Xia’s production at Manchester’s Royal Exchange is the 59th of its kind. With so many stage and film adaptations – from English National Opera’s 1823 interpretation to Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and, more recently, 2015’s Victor Frankenstein starring Daniel Radcliffe – it’s a tale we know well.
I wanted to love this production. I wanted to come away feeling terrified and shaken. After all, it’s a story that resonates with a modern audience – we live in a society where the disparity between rich and poor is becoming ever greater and there’s a worrying focus on our outward appearance that is messing with our collective psyche. Sadly, I didn’t leave with fear in my heart.
But I didn’t dislike it, either; there was simply a lack of new feelings and emotions. Playwright April De Angelis stays true to the original text – a ship’s captain (Ryan Gage) retelling the life of a marooned man, a narrative framed by layered and complex stories. The stranded man in question is none other than Victor Frankenstein, and we are invited to share in the captain’s suspicions that his new friend might be spinning a yarn to cover his own part in a series of murders.
At times, Gage’s captain is humorous, commenting on the ‘differences’ between men and women – chiefly that childbirth and motherhood is an easier feat than sailing – which prompted laughter all round. These were welcome asides in a predominantly dark tale.
The staging is decent, but several scenes seemed solely to create shock and disgust rather than add to any sense of malice. There are some nifty lighting tricks and periods of darkness which set my heart racing – but this is a psychological thriller, and I wanted more suspense. For me, that’s what makes horror – and gothic fiction – so appealing. I want to be scared by the not knowin, rather than be bombarded with plastic limbs caked in theatrical blood. I was more horrified by the evil-looking puppet standing in for Victor’s young brother, William, than anything else.
At its heart, that’s why Frankenstein is so chilling. We never quite know if Victor Frankenstein is telling the truth. While Shane Zaza does a wonderful job in portraying the troubled scientist, complete with twitchy hand movements and constant pacing of the stage, more could be done to keep the audience questioning – and interested.
Is he a murderer? Or is he mad? Did he create a monster to assuage his own guilt? Or is it a real being? Personally, I reckon the Doc is a bit of a narcissist with all that “I created life” chatter at the end, but that’s just me.
Harry Atwell’s Creature is outwardly vile and realistic: scalped head with wispy strands of hair, scarred flesh and whitened eyes, and he delivers lines with poignancy and punch. I’m captivated when he delivers his reproach to his creator, begging for another one of his kind to be formed. He pleads for sympathy and compassion and, at times, I was genuinely moved.
There’s also a particularly sinister scene involving Elizabeth (Shanaya Rafaat), a bed and her wedding night that, if the dog hadn’t been curled up on my pillows when I got home, would have made me check for anything menacing.
Xia’s Frankenstein is well-acted, but there’s little aimed at modern times which was disappointing. Maybe I’m asking too much?
As I exit the theatre, I have a listen to what people are saying. “Raaaaaah,” one man jokes and clutches his companion’s arm. Clearly he’s not shaken by what he’s just seen.
“Well,” says another, pulling her fella closer, as we head out into the night. “Thank god we survived our wedding night.”
Frankenstein is showing at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until April 14, 2018. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.