One of the best things about watching a live screening of Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein is seeing some of John Macfarlane’s designs in detail. The third scene takes place at Ingolstadt University’s anatomy theatre – a gloomy panelled paean to Gothic style presided over by yellowed model skeletons and Thomas Whitehead’s marvellously sneery professor. We even see the cadaver under the cloth, its waxy balls reminiscent of some unwanted gefilte fish. Nurses imperiously present the gathered students with pickled organs in glass jars, only to turn away shuddering with revulsion. Then there’s the galvanising machine that will reanimate dead flesh later on, complete with flying sparks, cranks, cogs and pumps.
I love the way Scarlett has the students pompously greet each other with posturing bows and competitive classical flourishes, while poor puppyish Henry Clerval (Alexander Campbell) is spurned from all this social ritual as though he’s come from an 18th century Swiss version of a comp on the Wirral. All the while, Victor Frankenstein (Federico Bonelli) remains a slightly aloof presence, clutching his as-yet empty notebook. Credit is due to Scarlett for wanting to remain faithful to Shelley’s novel, dispelling all those erroneous bolt-through-the-neck images of the narrative that have taken hold in the public imagination. But the ballet is deeply bogged down by exposition. Before we get to Ingolstadt or see anything of the creature, we have to sit through a lot of rather tedious balletic backstory that establishes the Frankenstein family situation. Balanchine famously said that there are no mother-in-laws in ballet – here we’re presented with Victor’s parents, an adoptive sister who’s soon to be his spouse, a pissed-off housekeeper and a troupe of cheery dancing domestic staff.
Laura Morera brings a fine sensitivity to the role of Elizabeth, but her character can’t develop beyond devotion to the constantly distracted Victor. Meanwhile, Bonelli’s dancing is always polished and he’s great at conveying panicked revulsion when faced with the creature. But we don’t see much of the driving egotistical force that gets him to that point. Instead of furtively creeping around in charnel houses collecting body bits, theatrical time constraints dictate that he has to whack a load of limbs together almost as soon as he arrives at Ingolstadt. To construct an emotionally demanding and violent patchwork creature is certainly high on the list of freshers’ week traumas, but then again you’d be pretty chuffed if it ended up with the mercurial magnetism of Steven McRae. Here dance and design become a perfectly conjoined vehicle for the narrative’s visceral body horror. Covered in raw sutured seams, McRae’s creature mutates from ragdoll vulnerability into mocking classical precision. His pas de deux with Elizabeth is a brilliant mixture of faux-gallantry and rough cruelty – here she becomes the helpless ragdoll, hauled through the traditional promenades and lifts of a love duet. The creature’s interactions with Victor also have a slithering, queasy intimacy, both threatening and imploring.
All this shows that Scarlett is a fine narrative choreographer, able to convey character with aplomb. It’s a shame that Lowell Liebermann’s score is eminently forgettable and that chunks of the choreography echo the established Macmillan and Ashton repertoire. Instead of ending up in the Arctic, the denouement takes place in a ballroom full of whirling Cinderella-esque sparkle and Prokofiev-lite music.
The Ingolstadt tavern’s merry dancing whores and the unjustly condemned maid who’s flung from man to man can’t help but bring Manon, Mayerling and Romeo & Juliet to mind. Victor and Elizabeth’s pas de deux are elegant, but run-of-the mill. Amongst all this lies a compelling work. Scarlett just needs to take a scalpel and an unsentimental eye to his own bulky creation.
Frankenstein is on at the Royal Opera House until 27th May 2016. Click here for tickets.