Review: Frankenstein – Fractal Theatre at Brisbane Arts Theatre

Images: Geoff Squires

Frankenstein, written at the start of the 19th century, has taken deep root in our culture. It’s a sprawling, gothic-romantic novel, considered by some to be the first science-fiction story. In a way it sits at the door of contemporary literature and points the way to the genres we now take for granted.

It’s a challenging novel to read, and its cinematic and theatrical spin-offs are legion as artists across the decades, fascinated by its subject matter, have attempted to set their own stamp upon it. Millions of words and perhaps as many hours have been devoted to this book, written by the 19 year old Mary Shelley during one rainy summer holiday in Geneva, and in response to a competition amongst her friends, including Byron and her husband to be, Percy Shelley, to see who could write the best horror story. Mary won that bet.

The latest to attempt to tame the beast is independent Fractal Theatre’s adaptation and production for the stage at Brisbane Arts Theatre. No matter the subject they tackle you know you are going to be provoked by Fractal. Their work doesn’t shy away from the intellectually difficult or the theatrically ambitious and Brenna Lee Cooney’s adaptation and direction of Frankenstein is no exception.

Adaptations for the stage, in general, are thick with their own demands. When the original work is as large as this – epic in the true sense of the word – crafting the text for performance (and this includes the playing time) is critical. A style to provide the housing for a play – one that at least echoes that of the original text – is usually kept in mind during the adaptation process. Form, design, a feel for what will be the tempo-rhythm of production and, of course, casting are all issues for consideration. With this adaptation and production of Frankenstein, Fractal have created a creature of their own, and it’s one that you will either admire for its largeness of vision, faithful adherence to the novel coupled with startling flashes of originality, or dismiss for its convoluted or confusing presentation.

I think there is more work to be done to shape this adaptation further.  There is no running time advised on the programme although I have been advised that the first act is “generally 1hr 5 mins and 2nd act 1 hour.” There is an interval.  It feels long due mostly to the play’s long passages of dialogue and the number of sequences which (on opening night at least) did not flow as smoothly or quickly as they might. The melodramatic dialogue lifted from the book’s pages is magnificent at times, strained at others. Some episodes – like that of the Cottagers – felt grafted on, others need tightening or cutting.

Frankenstein_2The production is at its best and most inventively appropriate in its corporeality – mime, dance, and physicality in the service of story-telling. Hat tip to Brian Lucas as facilitator and coach of the production’s movement sequences – Ms Theron and de Plevitz are especially impressive in this regard.

Musical accompaniment by Imogen Gilfedder-Cooney, Deanna Connelly and Andy Leask work marvellously in evoking mood and tempo. However, some satirical commentary – Henry Clerval’s death, for example, and the marionette-like entrances and exits by characters – provoked laughter which may have been intended but which, amongst otherwise naturalistic behaviour, sat quite oddly with the narrative. I’d love to see more integration of movement in the story-telling and less dialogue or, at least, dialogue edited to break the shackles of much of its 19th century heaviness.

Ms Cooney’s adaptation uses the often-omitted original framing device of Captain Walton’s narrative to introduce the story of Victor Frankenstein the young scientist who creates life and suffers forever after the torments of guilt and retribution for his unholy act. He is haunted, tormented and chased by his creation across the world and only rescued by Walton from the icy wastes of the North Pole by mere chance. He lives long enough to tell his story and to be mourned by the Creature who determines to kills himself. As he began it, Walton closes the cautionary and terrible tale of overweening ambition.

Walton’s narration works to set the mood of the tale especially when delivered by Eugene Gilfedder. Mr Gilfedder’s sure touch and mere presence brings a gravitas to the proceedings. He and the rest of the ensemble cast (Johancee Theron, Zoe de Plevitz, and Thomas Yaxley) play multiple roles across time and space. Frankenstein (Andrew Lowe) and the Creature (Cameron Hurry) along with Archie Horneman-Wren, Adam Florence and Zed Melling as young William Frankenstein, complete the cast.

The stage is filled with a clever set designed and realised by Chancie Jessop. Lit by Geoff Squires, the flexible construction serves to assist the play’s action, as do the fine costuming and props which are not only evocative of of early 19th century Europe but also integrate easily beside the production’s 21st century theatrical conventions.

When it comes to the cast of characters I have to admit to always feeling sorry for the Creature. As a result, poor old Frankenstein comes off as a bit of a cad. He’s outmanoeuvred at every turn by his creation and behaves so poorly, so inadequately at every turn, that he loses our sympathy. When the creature kills Frankenstein’s new wife, Elizabeth (Zoe de Plevitz) whom he’s kept dangling for years (poor love) it comes as no surprise. It’s terrible but dreadful punishment that seems to fit the crime; no more than he deserves, you almost think … and then regret it. Frankenstein is a difficult role to inhabit and Andrew Lowe struggles bravely with much of the impossibly melodramatic action and dialogue that are also the character’s burden. It is to his credit that Mr Lowe brings humanity and sympathy to the role.

There is no doubt, however, that this is the Creature’s play, and Cameron Hurry’s performance is splendidly bravura – physical, violent, vulnerable by turn and always affecting. His attempt to revive the corpse of his bride-to-be (Zoe de Plevitz) was, for me, the most touching and tragic moment in the play.

As I said at the top, Fractal will challenge you with their work. This production is no easy ride but then, like the book on which it is based, it’s not meant to be. See it to feel the power of a mighty yarn unfold before you and, maybe, a chill run down your spine.

The original version of the review gave the Creature entirely the wrong bride and, attributed the wrong actor. Apologies to readers for this blooper. I have corrected the mistake pointed out to me and would address my apologies especially to Zoe de Plevitz whose Corpse Bride deserves a credit in the programme for her work in partnering Cameron Hurry in what is the play’s most affecting scene.

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