views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Space
27th February 2018


In Isabel Dixon's adaptation of Frankenstein, it's not Victor (Carlton Venn) who creates the monster, it's Elizabeth (Danielle Winter). And the creature (Elizabeth Schenk) is female, demanding a child to nurture rather than a romantic companion of the opposite sex. Captain Walton (Sarah Lawrie) remains male however, proving that the company haven't just altered the gender of the various characters to suit the availability of actors. There's a clear creative decision here. Is it the right one?

I'm always cautious when it comes to messing with a classic and incorporating a gender reversal, usually preferring brand new roles to be written for women rather than arbitrarily deciding a well-known male protagonist should be female. However, Elizabeth actually makes for a more sympathetic protagonist than Shelley's Victor. Dixon makes her into a young girl who is fascinated with science, eagerly learning about chemistry and biology from her father and indeed from every book she can find. Elizabeth is aware that it's not really the done thing for a girl to be so knowledgeable, yet is thoroughly unbothered about challenging the stereotypes of her time. This level of comfort in her own skin makes her immediately likeable.

With Elizabeth firmly established as a strong, female character with a brilliant, scientific mind, it is disappointing to hear her chant away in Latin when she brings the creature to life. Why make her rely on what looks like magic when she's clearly a woman of science? Whilst we connect with Elizabeth as a young girl, as an adult, we find it harder to empathise with her rejection of the creature. She seems horrified by how the creature does not conform to her reality of a normal human, but Elizabeth herself does not meet society's expectations. Dixon needs to better explain why her fearless, feminist version of the monster's creator is so quick to judge and cower away.

Winter and Schenk both only play one role, with the other actors fluidly moving between parts. Katherine Timms displays her well-honed aptitude for ensemble movement and - no pun intended - uses the space of The Space well. With the audience watching the action in the round but plenty of room behind us for the actors to run about, it almost feels like we're all huddled together in the darkness listening to a campfire tale of horror. Odinn Orn Hilmarsson reliably builds on the atmosphere created by Andy Straw's eerie lighting by adding some realistic sound effects and Laura Kaye Thomson's theme further develops the sense of melancholy. After all, spoiler alert, Shelley didn't exactly pen a Disney adventure with a happy ending.

There are some standout elements to this production, such as the early characterisation of Elizabeth and the beautiful melodies used. The tight-knit family (Justine Moritz, Clerval and Lawrie) are portrayed credibly, however, not all the ensemble parts fare as well. Although Dixon's attempt to cram as much of the original plot into a script intended to create only 90 minutes of action is respectful of Shelley, at times you do wish either a few more cuts had been made, or the play staged as a fuller length production.

Elizabeth may not manage to bring something beautiful to life, but Burning Bright Theatre have infinitely more success with their feminist take on Frankenstein. An ambitious twist on a classic tale, delivered stylishly.

Frankenstein opened on 20th February and runs until 10th March 2018 at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)

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