Monday, 23 May 2016

Frankenstein: A New Ballet

Image: © British Library
When I first heard that the Royal Opera House was planning to stage Frankenstein as a ballet I was hugely excited and intrigued, but also a little wary: how would this classic Romantic work – and seminal Gothic masterpiece – translate to dance? Of course, Frankenstein has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times; in the decades following the novel’s publication, it was the inspiration for Richard Brinsley Peake’s Presumption; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823) and H. M. Milner’s The Man and the Monster! Or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1852). More recently, the text has inspired several films, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), I, Frankenstein (2014), and Victor Frankenstein (2015). In 2011, the Royal National Theatre staged an adaptation written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle in which the two lead actors swapped the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature on alternating nights.

As far as I know, though, there’s never been a dance version of Frankenstein, so I was really interested to see how this new adaptation by Liam Scarlett, the Royal Ballet’s Artist in Residence, would work. I have to admit, I was a bit cynical about how a text that is structured around story-telling and made up a layers of narration could be told without words. Scarlett overcomes this challenge, however, by showing us different perspectives: the creature learns about the world in parallel with the young William, just as in the novel Frankenstein's story of what happens when he returns home is followed by the Creature outlining his experiences during this period.

Walton is completely absent from this adaptation, which is entirely understandable: it would be very difficult to transpose Shelley’s intricate narratorial structure to the stage in its entirety. In other respects, however, Scarlett's production remains more faithful to the text than other recent artistic responses. Act I shows us Frankenstein’s childhood in detail, telling the story of how Elizabeth comes to be a part of the family and grows up alongside Frankenstein. Laura Morera is absolutely stunning as Elizabeth, conveying her character’s tenderness and longing and placing her at the centre of the story.

J. M. W. Turner, 'Mer de Glace' (1803)
The set for this ballet is really beautifully designed – there are lots of little details that really add to the production. The backdrop for Act II appears to have been inspired by Mary Shelley’s contemporary descriptions of the ‘shattered pines’ that were scattered around the landscape that she saw in Switzerland in 1816, and seems to draw on contemporary paintings such as J. M. W. Turner’s ‘Mer de Glace, in the Valley of Chamouni, Switzerland’ (1803). Likewise, the apocalyptic ending (in which Frankenstein dies, but in an unexpected manner… I’ll say no more!) is complemented by a fiery backdrop that is reminiscent of John Martin’s work.

The anatomy theatre in which Frankenstein learns about the human body before reconstructing a dissected cadaver and bringing him back to life was similarly atmospheric, managing to be cold and bleak and yet also full of interesting details such as specimen jars filled with grotesque samples. Contemporary scientific experiments were, of course, often ‘performed’ before the public; Humphry Davy in particular was concerned with how scientific lecturers should present themselves before an audience. It’s therefore entirely appropriate that the anatomy theatre in this ballet becomes a space of performance, with Thomas Whitehead playing an intense and theatrical professor. Like the mesmerised students on stage, the viewers in the audience are drawn into a world of scientific wonder where anything seems possible.

Image: © Royal Opera House
The anatomy theatre also functions as a kind of nightmarish mental space, symbolising Frankenstein’s obsession and torment. Various images are projected onto the walls, from whirling, imprisoning bars to raging lightening as Frankenstein’s work draws to a climax. The skeletons that adorn the set are both spooky and scientific, illustrating how Mary Shelley took the supernatural Gothic conventions of the eighteenth century and transformed them into a new, modern Gothic for the nineteenth century. The sterile and scientific setting of the laboratory is far removed from the traditional crumbling Gothic castle so commonplace in late eighteenth-century literature, but is just as scary. This transformation of Gothic conventions in Mary Shelley’s work is suggested from the beginning of the ballet, which opens with a picture of a fear-inducing skull which is then overlaid with scientific notes and diagrams.

Steven McRae plays a Creature who is about as distant from the Hollywood version as you can get – he’s sensitive, sensual, and longs for companionship (I must admit, I had a little weep in the third Act). McRae uses dance to grant the Creature a voice, demonstrating how he learns social courtesies from little William and longs to experience the romantic love shown by Frankenstein and Elizabeth. His feelings for his creator are intense and erotic, and in the final fight between the pair Frankenstein’s repulsion is countered by the Creature’s attraction: where Frankenstein attempts to hurt and destroy, the Creature seems to embrace. 

Image: © Royal Opera House
Despite Frankenstein’s apparent horror at his creation’s love for him, his own feelings for the
Creature reveal a homoerotic desire at times; Frankenstein straddles the Creature as he attempts to bring him to life, making the moment of birth (and the moment at which the father waits to meet his son) simultaneously a moment of copulation. Just as the Creature occupies peripheral spaces in the novel (hiding out in mountain ranges and peering through windows), so too does McRae’s Creature hide in the shadows on stage, lurking behind trees and flashing before Frankenstein’s eyes during the wedding dance.

If you have tickets for this brilliant production (lucky you!), I hope that you enjoy it – let me know what you think! If you didn’t manage to get tickets, there are a few little videos available on the Royal Opera House website that will give you an idea of what the production was like. This has all the makings of a classic ballet, so I’m sure that it will be performed again in the future.

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