Frankenstein (Royal Opera House)
The Royal Ballet’s artist in residence Liam Scarlett presents his first full-length work for the Royal Opera House main stage
Despite its ubiquity, Mary Shelley's novel is not easy to adapt. The 1931 film just about passes muster thanks to a touching performance from Boris Karloff. Danny Boyle's stage version had its longueurs but starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller who electrifyingly swapped the roles of Frankenstein and his Creature.
But there are many misfires too, including Wayne Eagling's 1985 dance work, made for the Royal Ballet with music by Vangelis which vanished from the repertory but not, alas, from the mind almost as soon as it was staged. All of which should have set alarm bells ringing at the Royal Ballet when the young and eager choreographer Liam Scarlett said he wanted to make his first full-act ballet based on the tale.
Scarlett's version is long – nearly three hours – and ambitious. He attempts to honour his source material, but he has so profoundly misunderstood the story that this Frankenstein is neither spine-tingling nor thought-provoking, just silly and dull.
In previous narrative ballets, the choreographer has shown flair and a taste for grand guignol effects but he has also, fatally, revealed an inability to distinguish the significant fact from the insignificant detail. Here everything must hinge on the relationship between Dr Frankenstein and the Creature who becomes a murderous killer not because of the way he is made, but because of how he is treated. He is the ultimate outsider, yearning for acceptance.
Yet Scarlett never shows us the depth of the Creature's rejection; until the very close, he shies away from a psychologically revealing duet between master and monster, preferring to concentrate instead on Frankenstein's love for the orphan Elizabeth. This unbalances the ballet, creating a vacuum at its heart. We get very little drama - just a lot of back story.
So it takes Frankenstein 30 minutes to leave home and go to university – a situation complicated by a lot of maids waltzing around to no particular purpose. Then, after one dramatically staged anatomy lesson with a lot of students jumping around to no particular purpose, and an inexplicable diversion to a brothel with a lot of whores waltzing around to no particular purpose, he makes a monster in a flash, with some conveniently vacuum-packed body parts and a few fireworks. No sooner has Steven McRae's horribly scarred beast come to life, than he runs out of the room.
When we return for Act II, we are once more in the Frankenstein garden, agonising with the maids doing some more arabesques for no apparent reason. Even when Frankenstein's young brother William (beautifully danced by Guillem Cabrera Espinach) is killed by the Creature, it remains profoundly unengaging. Driven by Lowell Liebermann's over-emphatic, doom-laden score, the steps are repetitive and formulaic, like parodies of other ballets
The dancers do their best to animate the corpse, but they don't have enough to do. Federico Bonelli lends Frankenstein what gravitas he can; McRae mainly lurks and occasionally, wonderfully, leaps.
On the plus side John Macfarlane's sets are ravishing, Gothic evocations. But overall this is a shocker – for all the wrong reasons.
Frankenstein runs at the Royal Opera House until 27 May 2016.