Mary Shelley created a monster with Frankenstein. Her novel was subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”, an oft-overlooked fact. If you know your Greek mythology, you’ll know Prometheus was a literary antecedent of Victor Frankenstein, credited with creating a man from clay. Shelley Just took the Promethean myth one grisly step further
Of course, Prometheus, nor Frankenstein, have an exclusive patent on such things. God, as attributed in both the Qur’an and Old Testament, was among the first to indulge in claymation; long before Edison released his ground-breaking ‘trick’ film. The golem is well-known in medieval literature, but harks back to Psalms. There are both Yiddish and Slavic tales which tell of a clay boy. None of them resembled George Clooney, or Brad Pitt. Not even Doug Pitt.
Nick Dear is a playwright and screenwriter, probably best-known for his BAFTA-winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. In a stroke of coincidence, the first production of his adaptation of Frankenstein, which premiered at London’s National Theatre only a year or two back, was directed by Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winner guiding the lens in Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, who’s just disappointingly bombed with Trance.
For what I take to be the Australian premiere, Mark Kilmurry, co-artistic director of Ensemble Theatre, takes to the box. And, in something of a coup (in breaking Sydney Theatre Company’s virtual jealously-guarded stranglehold on Sydney Opera House drama spaces), Ensemble has bought itself new cred and, very possibly, new audiences, by staging part of its season in The Playhouse. All has augured very favourably. Even the weather, for opening night, was an uncharacteristically heavy, grey, brisk autumn evening, strafed with rain. It was as if the gods had colluded.
As if capitalising on the vaguely cataclysmic climatic condition, designer Simone Romaniuk, Nicholas Higgins (lighting), Peggy Carter (make up), Terri Kibbler (wardrobe), Daryl Wallis (sound) and, for that matter, Elena Kats-Chernin (composer), as well as Heather Stratfold (cellist), have collaborated to bring about an atmosphere easily joined-up to lingering impressions left by, say, James. D. Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff as The Monster. And this dreadful aesthetic is achieved with a couple of sheer curtains, a few props, some antique hanging lamps, foreboding sound effects and precious little else.
Instead of Karloff, we’ve Lee Jones, who graduated from Theatre Nepean but a decade ago. Suffice to say, as The Creature, Jones is magnificent: beastly, yet transcendent. He’ll be desperately tough to beat to a Best Actor Crikey come year’s end and this performance ought to be enough to recommend him for any acting assignment. It’s hard to know what other guiding hands may’ve impacted upon this majestic characterisation. Shondelle Pratt, for example, is credited as choreographer, so might have contributed, more broadly, as a movement consultant.
Perhaps Natasha McNamara’s vocal coaching assisted Jones in developing his vocabulary of grunts and groans. I can only assume Kilmurry has been the key dramaturgical influence. But I’ve a sneaking feeling Jones might’ve done most of the prep himself. And it’s clearly taken intensive research and painstaking study. From the glimpses I’ve seen of Boyle’s production which, inspirationally, sees the otherwise pretty Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating as monster and creator. While Cumberbatch is dulcet in that way of the A-league of coarse-throated thespians, Jones throws predominant focus onto carriage and locomotion, his capacity for speech evolving over time. Dare I say, he’s established himself, overnight, as the definitive “creature”.
Even though, to begin with, his physical disposition appeared reminiscent of Peter Garrett dancing on stage, with Midnight Oil (not Julia), Jones seems to have created The Creature largely in the image of a cerebral palsy sufferer. This, to me, is a stroke of outright genius since, from the first, it communicates at least one of Shelley’s central ideas: our (in)human propensity to discriminate, alienate and sideline those we deem monsters, whether they be Jews, Muslims, Gypsies, blacks, Asian, mentally unfit, intellectually disabled; or classified, according to veritably forensic scrutiny, via a hundred pejoratives. Abos (or worse still, boongs), terrorists, towelheads, poofters are all terrible labels, denoting arbitrary prejudices that, tragically, have become more indelible as brands than Apple, Ikea or Mazda.
Katie Fitchett has a cameo as the short-lived female creature; her main role is as Victor’s forbearing wife, Elizabeth. She manages to effect the kind of grace under pressure one might expect of, say, a Dickensian woman. I prefer to see her as a version of Arabella Allen, Benjamin’s coal-eyed sister, from Pickwick Papers. Andrew Henry is Victor, slowly morphing from promising young medical scientist to as much, or much more of a monster than his creature ever proved to be. It’s a much finer line, we’re reminded, between a gentleman carrying a club and a gentleman’s club, than we generally dare admit. His transformation begs the question as to whether he and Jones might’ve alternated in the same way as their English counterparts.
If there’s a character that didn’t entirely convince me, it was probably Brian Meegan’s slightly self-conscious Monsieur Frankenstein (Victor’s father). He also appears as beggar, Klaus. Michael Rebetzke is among other characters, Felix, the hard-working agrarian son of a blind man, Ewan, the only person aside from Elizabeth who shows the creature any real kindness. His blindness enables him to see the creature for what he really is. Olivia Stambouliah is Felix’ beloved, devoted wife, Agatha. She enunciates beautifully.
Generally, all the supporting actors are, at the very least effective and slide from role to role as smoothly as Charlie Shavers, from note to note. They’re also particularly busy with stage management duties: no rest for the wicked.
Dear’s Frankenstein might be observed to be truer to Shelley’s vision than any other adaptation yet seen, for the simple, seminal fact that the creature is finally endowed with the voice that the author gave him, albeit by way of thought balloons. Not the barely subverted gangster voice De Niro unfortunately gave him in Branagh’s somewhat ill-advised cinematic rendition of a couple of decades back, but one more urgent, poignant and powerful. It’s one small step, one giant leap for this iconic monster.
Dear also brings into stark relief other big-picture ethical and philosophical ideas. We need to remember we will, inevitably reap what we sow. We’re the product of our inventions. We benefit from, as well as suffer, the consequences. The automobile, for example, gave us unprecedented personal freedom, individual expression and mobility. It also, along with a few other factors, gave us global warming. The creature was, for all intents and purposes, Victor’s unloved, unwanted son. Having fathered him, Victor summarily turned his back. If he became a monster, Frankenstein really did make him. In similar ways, we manufacture violence, by practicing neglect. The resentment engendered comes back to bite us, in manifold ways. In families, suburbs, communities and countries. In trouble between nations, races and religions.
At the end of the day, especially a bad day, we’re all as lonely, isolated and rejected as the creature. We’re all monsters. Noble savages. Lest we forget. Dear reminds us. He also reminds us what an enduring piece of work the creature is, thanks to Shelley. And what enduring pieces of ork we are. Thanks to God. Or Darwin. Or Dawkins. Somebody. Or something.
As a jaded reviewer, it’s rare to be so motivated to write by a work of theatre and even rarer for one’s thoughts, feelings and enthusiasms to be translated, with relative effortlessness, onto the page. Ensemble has broken through a glass ceiling with this production. It bodes well for a bright, interesting and even “edgy” future. There might well be a new guard scratching at the door.
Kilmurry has carved another notch on his considerable directorial bedpost. And Jones has whittled a whole new phase for what looks like being a brilliant career.
The details: Frankenstein is at The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until April 13 — tickets on the venue website.