Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece has defined the genre of sci-fi horror for the last two centuries; its tropes, themes and characters resurface time and time again, continuously setting the tone for directors, playwrights and authors in their pursuit of fear inducing narratives. It has become the generic shorthand for controversial interventions in medical science and is generally recognised as a warning against man’s meddling with nature. The story is one of deeply conflicted moral turpitude. Frankenstein’s hideous monster is the tragic incarnation, born from over-reaching ambition, of human depravity and bestiality. The creature learns the role of monster in the face of mankind’s pitiless response to its own physical deformity. The horror it inspires and the atrocities it commits are all the product of man’s own merciless actions.
Monstrosity, mercy, aberration, and companionship; these are just a few of the qualities that this story throws into question. Matthew Xia’s production at the Royal Exchange wonderfully captures this chilling moral dilemma. Doctor Frankenstein, played by Shane Zaza, is both tragic hero and a most wicked villain. He is skittish, guilt ridden, frantic and tormented. Zaza occasionally seems to struggle to fully project the dense gothic dialogue to the far reaches of Royal Exchange’s circular auditorium and some lines unfortunately are lost. It is a small infrequent fault however and one easily overlooked given the intensity of the rest of his performance. The monster, played outstandingly well by Harry Attwell, is heartbreakingly wretched. To begin with the monster is only visible in brief horror-film- esque glimpses and it is not until the end of the 1 st half that the audience is relieved of suspense and treated to the full presence of Atwell’s performance. Atwell finds the perfect balance between monster and victim and the audience cant help but squirm in-between contending emotions of revulsion, fear and pity.
The lighting, sound and visual effects form the backbone of this production and set a tone that oscillates between mesmerising beauty and genuine terror. Regular blackouts, fire, chilling music, a very evocative use of colour, and incredible costume and makeup give the production a filmic energy. Xia has the audience audibly gasping to an extent that is rarely heard outside of the cinema. The play is strongest when it explores the grave serious, tragedy and horror of Shelley’s story. Unfortunately however annoying interjections of crass unnecessary humour repeatedly distract from this intensity. This humour is mostly implemented by the character of the Captain, played by Ryan Gage, whose presence frames the play’s narrative, intending to reflect the epistolary style of the novel but in reality offering very little substance and mostly just coming across a little irritating. There are other moments of humour throughout which very frustratingly detract from the suspense, anguish and intensity of the relationship between Frankenstein and his creation and unfortunately stand in the way of this production being truly superb.
Written by @OscarLister