Review: Frankenstein at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Richard Hall

There has been a lot of hype surrounding this production with some if it promising “on-stage depictions of murder gore and dismembered body parts”, and in a recent interview, director Matthew Xia openly stated that he wanted to present “a nightmarish, fractious dream state … and scare the audience”. Over a longish two and half hours what emerges is less of a horror show and more a faithful realisation of the Gothic and Romantic elements of Shelly’s novel, first published 200 years ago when the author was just nineteen. Although the production does contain some fleeting moments of shock horror, they are for the most part muted and lack any real power and intensity to have a disturbing or unnerving effect.

As with the novel, April De Angelis’ new adaptation starts with a naval officer, Captain Walton, recounting the story in the form of letters written to his sister, whilst he and his crew are trapped in a mountain of ice near the North Pole. De Angelis’ intelligent adaptation cleverly combines the novel’s epistolary form with multi layered flashbacks which act as a perfect framing device for the production.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Discovered wandering out of his mind in the frozen wilderness, Victor Frankenstein is rescued by Walton and with no one on board that he can confide in, he sees the disturbed young doctor as someone he can befriend. Walton cajoles Frankenstein into telling his story and for the most part he watches silently in horror as the Doctor relates how from an early obsession with death he succeeded in creating and bringing to life a monstrous being. This monster it transpires is responsible for the death of those that Frankenstein has loved and held dear in his life, including his best friend, wife and younger brother.

Essential to any successful production of Frankenstein – and there have been a few notable ones in recent years, memorably Danny Boyle’s 2015 production at the National Theatre – is the casting of the two lead roles. Victor Frankenstein is a role that cries out for an actor that can bring to it bags of charisma and energy but Shane Zaza, a highly experienced and respected stage actor, sadly fails to convince in the role, looks uncomfortable and gives a one note performance that is mannered and limited in both dramatic and vocal range.

As the monster, Harry Attwell fares much better and the over long first half only bursts into life when he appears. Although I am sure the look of the monster has been thoroughly researched and designed to be true to the spirit of the novel, unfortunately a badly fitting wig/head piece and billowing costume makes Attwell’s monster look more like an absurd cross between the veteran actor and comedian Max Wall and the beast in Disney’s classic animated fairy tale. Despite this however, Attwell gives undoubtedly the finest performance of the evening and in denouncing Frankenstein and his manipulation of science and the natural order, he voices both 19th and 21st century concerns about wealth, poverty, injustice and the plight of the downtrodden. Although guilty of many heinous acts against Frankenstein and his family, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy and a degree of empathy for Attwell’s monster.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Led by Ryan Gage’s excellent and assiduous Captain Walton, a hard working cast play multiple roles as the story of Frankenstein’s adventures slowly unfold and are played out in a number of settings including Geneva, the remote Scottish Isles and much to the amusement of the first night audience, Derby. It is difficult to pin point why this production does not work in the way that Xia and the surrounding hype had intended. Although the Royal Exchange employs the full range of special effects in its armoury, including real rain water and pyrotechnics, the overall feeling is of a somewhat subdued, lacklustre production that looks great but contains little tension to drive the drama forward.

There is however still much to enjoy in this production, especially Ben Stones’ sparse but effective and innovative set, Mark Melville’s pulsating and thrilling sound design and Johanna Town’s stark and atmospheric lighting – but for genuine theatrical shocks and thrills, a visit to see Susan Hill’s masterly The Woman In Black either in the West End or on tour is recommended instead.

Frankenstein is at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until Saturday 14th April.

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