Review: Frankenstein (Royal Exchange Theatre)

April De Angelis adapts Mary Shelley’s classic in Manchester

In the 200th anniversary year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it’s a strong call to suggest the capacity for storytelling is one of the things that makes us truly human. April De Angelis‘ layered new adaptation – the 59th of its kind, according to a programme note – retains Shelley’s original framing device: a ship’s captain retelling the tale a marooned man told him. The Russian Doll structure, stories inside stories, reflects Shelley’s Promethean myth: man made by man. Besides, what’s storytelling if not bringing something to life?

Shane Zaza’s scientist, found wondering the ice by the crew of an arctic schooner, enters the empty space hunched beneath a monstrosity of furs. He could pass for a beast – and indeed he may be one. Throughout, De Angelis invites us to share in Captain Walton’s suspicion that this incredible tale of improbable science might have been concocted as a cover-up for murder. (A rare case of blaming your homework for your missing dog.) But then, that’s the thing about stories: like science, they can be used for both good and bad.

Frankenstein’s starts with the music box quality of memories revived. His wealthy Genoan family waltz around each other, taking on human projects of their own – an adopted daughter, Elizabeth, and an orphaned maid – as Frankenstein spins himself into a darker place, fixating on the forging of life itself.

De Angelis asks what drives him on: mortality, masculinity or a mash-up of both? Controlling the tempo, she brings death on at speed, so that scarlet fever claims his mother almost out of the blue. Is his obsession with re-animation about vanquishing death – or is it about controlling life? With Shanaya Rafaat playing a succession of wives, there’s a sense that men have always sought to remake others at will. It’s a sharp feminist undertow.

However, the main event is inevitably the bout between monster and maker. Designer Ben Stones brings a lightning bolt down to zap Harry Attwell’s Creature into life and he’s a rather vile thing: seamed with scars, white in the eyes, bald on top with lank straggles of hair. (Imagine Spinal Tap scalped, exhumed and wearing a skin jerkin.) Zaza’s constant twitchiness – a crick in his neck, fidgeting fingers – suggests a man uncomfortable in his own skin, maybe even making himself up. It’s a shame, though, that the monster’s played so straight: a creation out of control, maybe a Hyde-like dark side, but there’s too little metaphor aimed at modern times; nothing of genetics or robotics.

It’s one reason why Matthew Xia‘s staging, though it finds a pulse, never quite manages to instil real life. With no interpretative twist or specific vocabulary, his style tends towards staginess, and every plastic limb or waxy corpse pops you out of the fiction with a jolt. In relying on prosthetics over physicality, stage trickery over theatrical magic, Xia’s Frankenstein often succumbs to its schlock; all black-outs and spooks. Only Attwell’s Creature is mostly unconvincing – caked in so much greasepaint you start to suspect he’s been rebuilt from dead repertory actors and a load of old ham. Still, a good story can survive almost anything and, after 200 years, Shelley’s lives on.

Frankenstein runs at the Royal Exchange Manchester until 14 April.