Sunday, May 22, 2016

FRANKENSTEIN at Covent Garden - Frankenstein's at it again... this time on point!

Surely ice-skating is the only area of story-telling that has not been utilized to re-tell Mary Shelley's classic horror novel FRANKENSTEIN.  Since it's publication in 1818 it has been revisited, re-imagined, re-written, re-filmed... all a testament to Shelley's original idea of how man can be brought down through hubris and by his refusal to face the consequences of his actions.

However there is so much going on in her novel that any part of it can be picked on as a way to view the material.  And now it's latest incarnation is in a full-length production by the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and I saw it's 5th performance last week - always nice to be able to say that, with Royal Ballet productions it's usually the 305th!

Liam Scarlett is the Royal Ballet's artist-in-residence and this is his first full-length production for the company and it was marvellous to watch due to Scarlett's firm grasp on the narrative allied to a genuinely thrilling score by American composer Lowell Liebermann.

Scarlett stays mostly true to Shelley's story, dropping the framing device of Victor Frankenstein recounting his tale to the captain of a ship that rescues him and also the abortive creation of a mate for the creature but adds his own new spin as a finale which works within the spirit of the text.

The genesis of the story is almost as famous as the novel itself.  In 1816, aged only 19, Mary Godwin, her lover Percy Shelley and Mary's half-sister Claire Claremont travelled across Europe to visit Claire's lover Lord Byron and his physician John Polidori in the rented Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva.  Bad weather kept them indoors and Byron suggested they all try writing scary stories.  Mary struggled with hers but a later talk about experiments in galvanization gave her the idea of a man attempting to revive a corpse - the fact that she was still grieving for her baby who had died only two months before must have influenced this idea.

The story both reflected and foreshadowed Mary's life which was shrouded with death: her mother Mary Woolstonecraft died a month after giving birth to her, three of her children with Shelley died young, her step-sister Fanny killed herself as did Shelley's abandoned wife Harriet, Shelley drowned at sea in 1822 and Mary herself died aged only 53 in 1851 from a suspected brain tumor.

Liam Scarlett's production also utilizes a moody set design from John Macfarlane and David Finn's exceptional lighting design, along with a mood-setting front cloth of a skull seen in profile which at the start of the second act turned to face the audience - wooo!  As I said it was all marvellous to watch but, on reflection, the most negligible thing about the show was Scarlett's choreography.

I am no balletomane but time and again I found myself wondering how many scenes of prancing maids and servants does the story of FRANKENSTEIN need?  There was also a puzzling tavern routine which sat in between the anatomy lecture-room scenes which did nothing to forward the story and seemed to be there only to give the female members of the corps a chance to whore it up. 

I can appreciate that Liam Scarlett wanted to make the character of Elizabeth more than just a typical horror story heroine but again, when you realize that you are watching yet another interminable pas-de-deux for her and Victor, then you know something is off-kilter.  I must say however that Sarah Lamb as Elizabeth danced the role well, full of grace and humanity.

What made me brew on this so strongly was that the final confrontation between Victor and his Creature must surely be the emotional climax of the show but here it just did not spark - was it because we had the Male Team B of Tristan Dyer as Victor and Ryoichi Hirano as the Creature?  The only thing I could compare it to was the end of Matthew Bourne's SWAN LAKE which, no matter the dancers, always delivers an emotional punch.

There were fine performances from Ethan Bailey as William, Victor's young brother who plays a fatal game of blind-man's-bluff with the Creature in one of the more suspenseful scenes, James Hay was good as Frankenstein's friend Clerval, the always good Itziar Mendizabel did what she could with the minimal opportunities she had as the housekeeper Madame Moritz while her tragic daughter Justine was danced well by Francesca Hayward.

Despite my issues with the choreography I am glad we saw the show and more than enjoyed living through the story - which is more than 8 of the main 10 characters do!  It's few remaining shows are sold out but hopefully it will rejoin the repertoire - maybe in 2018 to mark the novel's 200th anniversary?

In the same week, by some odd stroke of luck, we found we had booked a Horror Triple Bill at the theatre: FRANKENSTEIN, DOCTOR FAUSTUS at the Duke of Yorks and JEKYLL & HYDE at the Old Vic - who came out the winner?  Constant Reader, read on...

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