CHRISTCHURCH REVIEW: Frankenstein (The Court Theatre)

Review by Nathan Joe

[Man-made horrors]

The corrupting influence of human nature versus nurture is at the heart of Frankenstein, both the original story and this stage adaptation. It’s one of those classics that speaks to the human condition in a timeless way. It’s one of those classics that barely needs introduction, its mythology so embedded into our cultural consciousness. The iconic tale of a man seeking to bring a life into the world using science alone, against the will of a supposed God. Here, with The Court Theatre production, we are given a clear take on the downfall of this man and the man’s creation. It tasks us with asking big and bold existential questions about what makes us tick and refuses to give us any easy answers. 

The adaptation of page to stage is a particularly British brand of imported theatre. The novel, in particular, has always made for a popular choice to theatricalise in this way. The irony is that, despite the tradition of this, these texts are rarely inherently theatrical. Their dramaturgical considerations are often lacking, and they demand a generous amount of heavy lifting by the director. Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel suffers from this at times, often appearing a few shades closer to a sparknotes edition of the book than a fully considered play in itself. 

The episodic nature of the script demands a lot of tricks to glue the many pieces together. Without the extravagant resources of the original National Theatre production at hand, director Holly Chappell resorts to a more stripped back production. It’s a stylized interpretation of staging that masks the gaps in the text, bridging them with considered movement sequences and a consistent theatrical language. The NASDA graduates involved work to deliver these sections with utter commitment, supported by movement director (and fellow performer) Tom Eason. 

If at times slightly whimsical, playing into the fantasy more than the horror elements of the story, this is a consistent and, at best, highly watchable panorama of our psychological landscape. Harold Moot’s set evokes the rocky terrains of nature untamed, utterly gothic in tone, and only a few shades before tipping into German Expressionism. Sheena Baines-Alhawamdeh’s lighting, on the other hand, effectively helps guide us back and forth between the domestic and the wild as the play demands. 

A particular highlight that elevates the tone of the text, bringing it from a traditional adaptation to something more are the costumes by Steven Junil Park. While mostly serving the 18th century period aesthetic, key dramatic moments are punctuated with excessive costume reveals that convey the unconscious and more primal forces at play. Suffice to say wrath and death become present in the literal fabric of the play. So too is the creature’s straitjacket-evoking costume that foregoes the obvious choice of monstrous makeup and favours a sense of bondage instead. 

The central character of the play is not, as often mistaken, Frankenstein – but his monster. The major highlight then is Wesley Dowdell’s Creature, tasked with this role on opening night. He gives a spectacular interpretation of a difficult role, blowing the dust off the potentially pantomime-esque demands. Yet he avoids this by adding degrees of subtlety to his hunched and constantly evolving physicality. We see him grow and develop from thing to child to man over time, and we believe it. With no makeup to hide behind, his performance is left exposed, and he rises to the challenge. 

James Kupa has the equally difficult role for Victor Frankenstein, the titular character, though often overshadowed due to less stage time. It’s difficulty is that he borders on cartoon villain, but Kupa finds truth in the philosophising. He plays the character’s ego as big as it needs to be for us to despise him, his drive an undeniable force of nature in itself. Though occasionally a more complex moral greyness is lost in the histrionics. 

The acting styles of the rest of the ensemble occasionally buckle under the weight of the period setting. The result is a patchwork of an exquisite corpse, where different performers feel like they’ve been plucked from different plays. Sometimes it feels like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town or Shakespeare rather than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The styles come across as melodramatic or unintentionally camp at times, an occasionally jarring effect that doesn’t undo the best moments of the play, but don’t serve them either. The feeling of horror is where the production occasionally falls short, lacking visceral shock or devastation even in its most dramatically brutal sections. 

Not that it’s an unremittingly hopeless story. This isn’t the misanthropic posturing of say Lars Von Trier, where a protagonist is punished over and over needlessly. There’s a method to the madness that demonstrates that humanity is not unsalvageable, despite the darkest corrupting forces. There is light in the characters here and there, for instance. Humanity doesn’t win, but humanity is a complex system of conflicting forces often overtaken by our worst impulses and instincts. 

Where the production succeeds is in a unity of its theatrical elements and a clarity around its themes. I sink into the discourse the characters engage passionately in. The ending too demonstrates an absurdist bone, the characters bound together in a prison of their own making that would make Beckett chuckle. 

Both a demonstration of the universality of certain themes and an accessible way to devour a literary classic, Chappell wrestles with an unwieldy text and succeeds in bringing it to life. That alongside the exciting prospect to see Kupa and Dowdell swap roles every night will make seeing it twice an appealing prospect to its fans.

Frankenstein plays 7 August – 4 September, 2021. 

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