Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Review: Liam Scarlett's 'Frankenstein' at the Royal Opera House

Coinciding with the bicentenary of the notorious ‘Summer of 1816’, Liam Scarlett’s adaptation of Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece 'Frankenstein' was screened in cinemas nationwide last week, live from the Royal Opera House. A co-production by the Royal Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, this adaptation featured Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein, Laura Morera as Elizabeth Lavenza, and Steven MacRae as The Creature.

As Scarlett’s first full-length work for the main stage, this was a bold undertaking; the novel, written in epistolary form, grapples with some pretty heavy philosophical themes that are difficult to convey visually. And yet, the ballet is a surprisingly appropriate arena for a story about testing the parameters of the human anatomy.

Accompanied by a haunting original score by composer Lowell Liebermann, Scarlett’s visceral production succeeds in transposing the inner turmoil of Shelley’s characters into dance, vividly animating and embodying the dark emotions that bubble below the surface.

The production boasts an impressive period set designed by John McFarlane, which includes a full-size operating theatre complete with grisly medical paraphernalia. In the pivotal scene, seemingly lifted straight from Shelley’s waking dream, a replica 19th century electrostatic machine crackles overhead as Victor administers the vitals shocks necessary to wake his creation. It seems a shame that the general press were unroused by this electricity…

(Warning: Spoilers)

They just don't make 'em like they used to...

As the Guardian’s Luke Jennings has observed, Scarlett’s interpretation possesses a good deal more sentimentality than the source material. In keeping with classical ballet, Victor and Elizabeth skilfully but dutifully perform the central pas de deux in each act, but it is the Creature – exquisitely danced by Steven McRae - who steals the show. At once terrible and beautiful, the Creature embodies Burkean sublimity in his graceful yet violent movements. Towards the end of the final act, creator and creation share an intense pas de deux that literalises the uncanny doubling and grotesquely emphasises their simultaneous likeness and asymmetry.

Moreover, the ending controversially steers away from Shelley’s narrative in the last act, wherein we see Victor take his own life, leaving the Creature bereft. However, I found these transgressions easy to overlook as I was thoroughly taken in by the action. Contrary to Mark Monahan’s unforgiving review in the Telegraph, I applaud Scarlett’s ambition in taking on a project of this magnitude. While I am no dance expert, I can perhaps appreciate Scarlett’s engagement with the Gothic better than some of his scathing critics. As an adaptation, liberties can (and often ought to be) taken in an effort to revitalise the original text. Scarlett succeeds in dissecting Shelley’s novel and reassembling its components so that the ‘body’ of the story is resurrected in a new, distorted form. Scarlett succeeds in giving the Creature an eloquent voice through dance, which Shelley would have undoubtedly approved of.

Some of the ensemble sequences featuring the appropriately-titled corps de ballet are, admittedly, a little tedious when they cease to further the plot. However, Scarlett makes good use of the ROH’s large company when choreographing a shock-inspiring public hanging scene for Justine. My only real objection is that I thought McRae’s exhilarating performance as the Creature deserved more stage time than Victor and Elizabeth’s romance, which failed to move me in the same way as the forlorn Creature’s frantic attempt to resuscitate his creator in the final moments of Act 3.

Carly Stevenson is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Sheffield. She finds 'Frankenstein' 'electrifying'!

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