There have been so many productions and adaptations of Frankenstein over the years, and in many different forms – some with demonised monsters, some with immoral creators, focussing on life, death, abandonment and the complex issue of maternal instinct. Some productions have looked at the monster’s side of the story, or stuck with Frankenstein’s personal journey and relationships. It is a story open to interpretation, particularly on the stage. However, what stood out about this production of Dr Frankenstein was that Victor, or I should say Victoria, was a woman. I have never seen the show with a female lead, and, set in 1831; I was fascinated by the concept, and what type of spanner such a choice would throw in the maternal creation theories of Mary Shelley’s original 1818 story.
The set, designed by Tom Piper, was carefully lit, creating dark corners and atmospheric shadows. The use of tarnished mirrors concealing entrances and exits, and revealing shelves of medicine bottles when lit from behind, was particularly interesting, and acted as a motif for the performance – the characters were all reflected in the walls of the set, obscured and stretched into their own odd shapes. The music also set the tone, with a faint heartbeat to be heard in the background of several scenes within Frankenstein’s laboratory. The scene for Selma Dimitrijevic’s new adaptation was set.
Directed by Lorne Campbell, Dr Frankenstein was performed as part of the Queens of the North, a season of female stories and storytellers at the Northern Stage. It showed a woman struggling to find her place in a man’s world of medicine and experimental science. While this was often tackled a little too directly, the concept was enough to draw me in, and I was eager to see how Victoria’s first meeting with her creation would play out. More often than not, Frankenstein is shown to be terrified of his creation, abandoning his responsibility and leaving the monster in isolation. With Victoria, played by the vibrant Polly Frame, this did not happen. She approaches the monster, played by Ed Gaughan, a much larger and stronger figure than herself, and simply says “hello”. She attempts to test his reflexes and his response to pain, as any scientist would, but injures him in the process. He is overwhelmed and ends up hitting Victoria, knocking her unconscious, and running away. This surprised me. The act of abandonment was transferred to the creature, not creator, and what followed focussed more on Victoria’s eagerness to continue her research, even at the sacrifice of her family, while almost ignoring her runaway.
There were a few scenes to show the development of the creature, limping through the set with a walking stick, picking up language with slow, slurred speech. Gaughan definitely stole the scene when he was on stage, but I found his use of impression – when imitating his abusers to Victoria or the audience – a little out of place; as if he was deliberately trying to make the audience laugh. There were few comic moments in what I believe to be a serious story, and these scenes stood out for the wrong reasons. But then, I am an academic – perhaps I am putting too much value on Shelley’s original portrayal of the fearful relationship between master and creation.
The supporting cast were excellent. When the creature begins to mess with Victoria’s family, most of which was done behind the scenes, and when he requests a mate, Victoria is forced to face the consequences of her scientific ambition. Mary the housemaid (Libby Davison), Justine (Rachel Denning) and Elizabeth (Victoria Elliot), act as extensions of Victoria’s conscience. Mary continually reminds Victoria of her mother’s kindness and sacrifices; Justine is willing to die for her pursuit of truth; and Elizabeth tries to convince Justine to lie to save herself from hanging. After Victoria fails to act, and Justine is sentenced to death, her creature finds her once more. Victoria welcomes him into her family home, nurtures and talks to him, and he begins to tell her his story: “She said hello”. In quite an abrupt, but poignant end, this line finished the show.
Although there were parts of this production I enjoyed more than others, I was very happy to see such a bold adaptation come to the stage. Campbell and Dimitrijevic brought a breath (or should I say spark?) of new life to Shelley’s infamous tale, showing an interesting and alternative perspective on the relationship between creator and creature. While the female lead was a bold choice, I could not help but wonder what difference it would have made if there were women in both roles.
Dr Frankenstein, adapted by Selma Dimitrijevic and directed by Lorne Campbell, is on at Northern Stage until 11th March.
Images © Pamela Raith.