Ensemble Theatre, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, April 3.
FRANKENSTEIN is a name that despite one’s best efforts to resist brings forth mental images of freaks and bogeymen. Perhaps nothing quite as silly as a lurching giant with bolts through the neck, but something not quite human.
Nick Dear’s over-weening scientist Victor Frankenstein is not this kind of sentient wreckage, at least physically, but he is indeed the real monster of Dear’s piece; a demon in fine clothes and from a good family. Frankenstein experiments in areas he ought to avoid, he fails to rise to the challenge of the practical, moral and philosophical questions that arise, and he ultimately reveals himself to be more lacking in humanity – and courage – than the patchwork man he puts together.
Dear’s animating idea for his play, if you’ll forgive me, is to stack the deck against Frankenstein in a way Mary Shelley did not in her 1818 story. Dear sides with The Creature and so do we, from the first unforgettable moments of the play when we are made to share his birth pains and early lessons in the ways in which the different are treated.
And in these moments, and much that follows, lies a weakness of Frankenstein, which is that The Creature is infinitely more interesting than his creator – more intelligent, more feeling, more passionate, more violent, more everything, yet the scientist is treated as if he were just as fascinating. The justly lauded National Theatre production of 2011 in London (seen here via the NTLive series) got around that one by alternating Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the two roles. That was a double win: not only would it have kept the actors invested as much in Frankenstein as in The Creature, it made audiences want to see it twice. Simple, yet elegant.
Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre doesn’t have a trick like that up its sleeve nor the scenic resources to cast a veil of glamour over the lumpier parts of text and structure. That’s not to say it isn’t well designed for its space (it is), but there’s nowhere for the play to hide, metaphorically speaking. Which leaves Lee Jones’s Creature to carry the show, which he does heartbreakingly well. It’s an incredibly demanding role, and confronting on a number of levels. Jones’s contorted (and we couldn’t help but notice exceptionally well honed) body is the vehicle for extreme physical and metaphysical anguish. Added to that is the necessity of conveying The Creature’s growing sophistication in thinking, reasoning and argument. A third layer is finding the balance between attraction and repulsion, the gaining or forfeiture of sympathy.
When Jones is absent from the stage, which he is for longish stretches, Frankenstein drops considerably in temperature. Andrew Henry is a very creditable Victor, but the character can’t compete with the white heat thrown out by The Creature, who gets the very best writing Dear has to offer.
There are big themes everywhere – the lure of science over religion, intellectual arrogance, the degree of power people seeks to exercise over others, the scarcity of compassion, the effect of brutalisation, whether, as Milton had it, it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven, and so much more. (“You’ve read Paradise Lost,” marvels Frankenstein. “I liked it,” says The Creature in perhaps the shortest and most heavily freighted sentence in the play.)
Only in the figure of The Creature are all these ideas brought to incandescent life. Why do you want me to make a mate for you, Frankenstein inquires of The Creature (Victor really is quite dense). “Because I am lonely,” howls the man who has known a small amount of acceptance and a vast store of cruelty, hate, abandonment and deception. It’s a devastating moment, as is a quieter one: Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth, asks The Creature his name: “He did not give me one.” Not long after The Creature will get his revenge.
These are the places in Frankenstein that prick the eyes, and there are more than enough of them. On the debit side is that some of the minor characters are clumsily played, which is unfortunate. There are times when the two-hour, no-interval action needs assistance it doesn’t get.
Director Mark Kilmurry may have presided over a somewhat uneven production, but one with punches to the solar plexus that won’t be readily forgotten. Simone Romaniuk’s circle of translucent curtains proves an excellently fluent base for the action and it was a stroke of brilliance to ask Elena Kats-Chernin – a composer of instinctively dramatic gifts – to write a score, here played by cellist Heather Stratfold amidst Daryl Wallis’s evocative sound design.
In the Playhouse of the Sydney Opera House Frankenstein has a space suited to its action. It’s hard to see how it’s going to work in the minuscule Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli when it moves there after the short SOH season. Under scrutiny as close as that Jones is going to have to give an even braver performance. He looks up to it.
Frankenstein at the Sydney Opera House until April 13; Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli April 17-May 4. A national tour starts in Canberra on May 7. Venues in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and NSW follow. The tour ends in Wollongong in August.