First published in The Times, Friday February 10 2017
The iconic status of Mary Shelley’s creation is mainly thanks to a Hollywood makeup artist named Jack Pierce. He dreamt up the image of the flat-topped monster with bolts in his neck, made immortal by Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 film adaption, that has long eclipsed the “shrivelled complexion and straight black lips” of the creature in the original novel.
This latest addition to the Frankenstein myth, written by Selma Dimitrijevic, is faithful to the spirit if not quite the letter of its 200-year-old source. The twist in this co-production between Northern Stage and Greyscale is that the title character’s gender has been changed, thus making explicit the novel’s subtext about the consequences and implications of marginalising women.
In this version of the story, before she can embark on her prime objective of reanimating the dead, Victoria (Polly Frame) must first overcome the expectations of her father (Donald McBride) and wider society’s outrage at her desire to explore a vocation that is beyond the confines of domesticity. “What if I don’t like pretty things?” she wonders aloud. “What happens then?”
Pic: Pamela Raith
Dimitrijevic’s script pares the plot down to its essentials, which, matched by sharp direction from Lorne Campbell, makes for an absorbing two-hour production. If certain passages feature too much unnecessary exposition of the play’s themes, there are compensations in subtler moments. The scene in which the family delights in striking fire from an innovation called matches is an engaging reference to the novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus. Lizzie Powell’s stark lighting and the understated but ever-present soundscape created by Nick John Williams enhance the atmosphere of simmering dread.
There are fine performances across the seven-strong ensemble, which will also be appearing in repertory in Northern Stage’s forthcoming Hedda Gabler before this production sets off around the country on tour. The most striking scenes here, however, are those involving Ed Gaughan as the Creature.
Pic: Pamela Raith
In marked contrast to the mute, lumbering monster of popular culture, Gaughan’s performance disturbs precisely because he makes his character so measured and inconspicuous, which in turn has the effect of rendering his occasional bursts of rage all the more shocking. In a show that deals primarily in visceral rather than gory horror, the final showdown between the Creature and Frame’s creator is all the more moving for its admirable restraint.