Yes, it’s yet another adaptation of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel has become so entwined in the collective psyche that it’s hard to see what fresh twist anyone can bring to the story of one man and his creature with a bolt through his neck.
However Northern Stage give it a damn good go in this reinterpretation by Selma Dimitrijevic. In her script, the good doctor is now a woman, Victoria Frankenstein, studying medicine in the early 19th century. Haunted by the early death of her mother, she becomes obsessed with finding a way to bring people back from the dead, experimenting with a rabbit (named, in a nod to Shelley’s alternative title to her work, Prometheus) before moving onto reanimating an actual corpse…
The gender swap is an intriguing idea, and one with myriad possibilities, yet it’s one that the script fails to follow up on. There’s presumably much to say about the misogyny and prejudice that women seeking to enter the medicine field suffered in those days, but apart from a throwaway line about “why study medicine if you’re not allowed to practice it?”, and some mild disapproval from her family, these themes aren’t really addressed.
There is still much to admire in Lorne Campbell’s atmospheric production though – it looks absolutely sumptuous for one thing, with Lizzie Powell’s lighting and Nick John Williams’ doomy score creating a suitably Gothic shade for Tom Piper’s impressive stage, while the cast are uniformly excellent. Polly Frame is a spirited, energetic and sometimes tortured Victoria, and Ed Gaughan highlights both the pathos and unnerving qualities of the monster.
The problem is that, with just a two hour running time, there’s an awful lot to pack in. The first half moves at such a quick pace, it’s easy to become confused. One moment Victoria is discussing studying medicine with her family (in scenes that oddly recall Pride & Prejudice at times), and then, in the blink of an eye, she’s experimenting in a scientific lab and being visited by her future brother-in-law. The moment where ‘the creature’ awakes is suitably chilling (helping in no small part by Williams’ dramatic chords), but it creeps up so quickly that you wonder whether you’ve missed something.
While the plot is possibly too pared-down, Dimitrijevic succeeds more with her characters – Shelley’s female players are beefed up here and become far more believable and sympathetic. Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s fiancée in the original, becomes Victoria’s more grounded and conventional sister, while Rachel Denning takes on the role of Justine – when she is mistakenly hauled off to the gallows for murder, her loss is felt keenly.
Although maybe not the scariest production of Frankenstein you’ll see, Campbell ramps up the atmospherics in the second half, especially for a feverish dream sequence, and Gaughan takes the spotlight for a couple of soliloquies that often tug at the heartstrings, especially when drawing parallels with how disabled people are treated by society. Gaughan’s comic background is also drawn upon with some impressive mimicking skills, although this does sometimes make his dialogue hard to understand.
It’s a production full of impressive moments but which, for some reason, becomes hard to connect with. While there are plenty of thought-provoking themes raised, and scenes that stick in the mind for hours afterwards, this ultimately feels like a missed opportunity.
Dr Frankenstein is on until 25 March 2017 at the Crucible in Sheffield. Click here for more details.