Innovative production bringing Frankenstein back to life in Norfolk
- Credit: Archant
Two centuries after Mary Shelley wrote her the gothic horror masterpiece acclaimed company Blackeyed Theatre has breathed new life into it, complete with full-size puppet Creature.
Geneva, 1816 - Victor Frankenstein obsesses in pursuit of nature's secret, the elixir of life itself. But nothing can prepare him for what he creates. So begins a gripping life or death adventure taking him to the ends of the earth and beyond.
It is 200 years since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. She spent the summer of 1816 at Lake Geneva with the poet Lord Byron, his doctor John Polidori, and Percy Shelley. Because of the poor weather they stayed indoors and read ghost stories to each other, the result of which was a writing competition that inspired Mary to pen the first draft of what would become one of the most famous novels ever written.
Marking the bicentenary of the creation of Shelley's gothic horror masterpiece acclaimed company Blackeyed Theatre has produced a new stage adaptation and they bring it to Norwich Playhouse, returning next month to Auden Theatre in Holt and Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal in March.
Adapted by John Ginman, who penned Blackeyed's hugely successful 2013 production of that other gothic chiller Dracula, it is a production that has already won acclaim for its fusing of bold ensemble storytelling, live music, puppetry and theatricality to create a fresh telling of what has become a landmark work of literature.
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A unique feature is the use of Bunraku-style puppetry to portray The Creature, a role that in many theatre versions is often portrayed by an actor, or in the case of Danny Boyle recent celebrated National Theatre production, two actors as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller swapped the roles of Frankenstein and his creation.
Designed and built by Yvonne Stone, a puppet maker and puppetry director who has previously worked on the groundbreaking stage adaptations of Warhorse and His Dark Materials, the full size six foot four inch puppet, which needs up to three people to manipulate it, certainly brings to life this retelling of the classic story.
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'The story of Frankenstein is all about bringing life to an inanimate object and using puppetry perfectly embodies this,' explains Yvonne. 'As the electricity enters the creature we see the puppeteers breath life in to him. Puppets also have slightly different rules to humans which gives us so many possibilities.'
Not that the idea of using puppetry was without its challenges.
'The sheer scale of the tour is a challenge in itself, trying to create something that can do this number of venues with hopefully very little maintenance,' adds the designer. 'I was very excited to work with Blackeyed Theatre. It is the first time they have worked with puppetry and they have been so respectful of the process which is such a pleasure. Every show I work on is so different and Frankenstein seems the ultimate making experience - in a way I am Frankenstein beavering away in my workshop creating this monster!'
The production reunites the Dracula artistic team, John Ginman as writer, Ron McAllister as composer, Victoria Spearing as designer and Eliot Giuralarocca as director.
'Since its first publication in 1818, Frankenstein has inspired many stage adaptations,' said John Ginman about the challenge of staging the story. 'As early as 1823 Richard Brinsley Peake wrote a version called called Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein. It took great liberties with the narrative, and made the action and the character-types conform to the melodramatic conventions of the day: Victor had a comic assistant, called Fritz, Elizabeth became Victor's sister and was wooed by Henry Clerval. Mary Shelley's framing narrative with James Walton was cut completely. The Creature — named the Monster in Peake's version, was not given any dialogue to speak.
'We respect the novel's multi-layered way of telling the story. Frankenstein is carefully constructed like a set of Russian dolls: it has a story within a story within a story. At the core of the book is the Creature's account of the experiences that have formed him, and we include it, told in the Creature's own words.
'A strength of the novel is the way Shelley uses her story to explore complex ethical issues. The Creature's voice is crucial to this.'
Blackeyed's version is also inspired by Shelley's keen interest in some of the most advanced scientific thinking of her day, in particular Galvanism, and Humphry Davy's work on the creative potential of electricity.
'She was living through a time in which the pace of scientific discovery was rapid, and science seemed able to empower mankind in almost superhuman ways,' adds Ginman.
The challenge of bringing a gothic fairy tale kicking and screaming into life is what appealed to director Eliot Giuralarocca.
'It's a taut, gripping thriller, an exciting gothic fairy tale for grown-ups and a morality play all rolled into one,' he said. 'It's always a daunting challenge to attempt to breathe new life into a classic.'
One of the visions for this adaptation is to capture the unique structure of Shelley's novel, something that is often ditched in adaptations.
I suppose for me, one of my touchstones for this piece was that the structure of the novel takes the form of a story that contains other stories within it,' explains Eliot.
'We start with Captain Robert Walton's story recounting his journey to the North Pole where he meets an exhausted, half-dead Frankenstein. He in turn, proceeds to tells the story of his life and within that story we find another story, the Creature's story. This 'Russian doll' structure sparked my imagination.
'For me Frankenstein suddenly felt like a dark gothic fairy tale with a nightmarish and dream like quality that seemed to flow from this. It struck me that those that didn't know the novel and who were watching in the theatre without any preconceptions might question how reliable Frankenstein is? Could what he says be true? Has he hallucinated the whole thing? Is he in fact a raving madman?
'Dramatically, all we know for sure is that he's telling a story. And so I decided that we should embrace this element and absolutely make the fact that he's telling the story the focal point of the piece. So we 'set' the play on the ship upon which Frankenstein clambers aboard, as that is the only thing that we know to be real, and in turn the ship ropes and crates and the materials and the furniture that he finds there become what he uses, and we use theatrically, to help to tell his story.
'The creature too has elements and accents of this world of the ship, of cloth and rope and sack and stiches, something that has literally been brought to life by Frankenstein as if wrenched from the set.'
Bringing this story to life is a cast of five that includes National Theatre actor Ben Warwick as Victor Frankenstein, Max Gallagher as Henry Clerval, Lara Cowin as Elizabeth Lavenza, Louis Labovitch and Ashley Sean-Cook.
'We utilising all the skills and abilities that our company of five performers possess,' adds Eliot. 'If audiences leave the theatre excited and entertained by what they've seen as well as being moved and challenged by the complex moral questions that this tale provokes, I'd be delighted.'
• Frankenstein, Norwich Playhouse, January 31, 2pm/7.30pm, £14 (£12 cons), 01603 598598, www.norwichplayhouse.co.uk
• It is also at Auden Theatre, Holt, February 27, 7.30pm, £10 (£8 cons), 01263 713444, www.audentheatre.co.uk/Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, March 9-10, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Mar 8, £21.50-£8.50, 01284 769505, www.theatreroyal.org