Review: Royal Ballet – Frankenstein
Choreography: Liam Scarlett
By Mae Anthony
“Believe me Frankenstein: I was benevolent; my soul glowed with love and humanity; but am I not alone, miserably alone? You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow-creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me.”
Originally published in 1818 under a pseudonym, Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel Frankenstein is one of literature’s foremost explorations of the plight of the human condition. A colossal entity, it has proven to stand the test of time with a ballet being written, staged and produced on the story just 198 years after its original publication as part of the 2016 Palace Opera & Ballet Cinema Season. Filmed in London’s Covent Garden, the production is screening in cinemas across the world.
My initial notion of seeing a stage ballet filmed was of a quasi-sceptical one; surely I could not enjoy it in all of its good-natured intentions if I were not to see it in person. This was not enough to deter me, and combated by the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing it at all as it isn’t being stage here, I can honestly say I’m glad I was not put off. I may even go as far as to say that it has enriched my life.
I fell in love with Frankenstein within the first few pages of reading it. I was in awe of the concept of the story that was delivered in a prolific and far from rudimentary fashion. Its complex non-linear narrative structure explores the happenings of Victor Frankenstein who upon initial meeting seems to live a rather privileged and idyllic lifestyle. The curious Victor Frankenstein creates a grotesque being out of dismembered body parts using electricity. Inspired by his thirst for knowledge and knee-jerk reaction of grief to the loss of his mother, he makes a deep laceration in the fabric of what is humanly right and wrong. Unsurprisingly, chaos ensues.
My ability to sit through a three-act ballet and be so engrossed in it could be due to my strong connection to the novel. Prior to seeing this, I had never watched a ballet in full, but I’m almost certain that the narrative itself is seductive enough to draw people in. Look up a synopsis if you can’t bring yourself to read the novel, and I can assure you, reader, that you will be able to salvage every last bit of genius cultivated in restoration of this nineteenth-century gothic tale.
Thrilling, fast paced and agonising, the production was executed flawlessly through the skill of the dancers, and quite notably in the highly cinematic nature of the staging, props, costumes, and visual effects: it was grand without being overbearing. Each set was stylistically appropriate, and the visual backgrounds were a distinct highlight in a resplendent commentary on the underlying plot, again sticking to the original, where calamity of the natural order is disrupted and reflected in the natural landscape. Props were used symbolically with the utmost charm, and the lighting and staging ensured that their cinematic effects could be delivered through the characters, often acting as shadows of thought in a flashback style (an impressive feat for live performance)
Every detail was mapped to maintain the original intentions of the fragile literary relic – this could be seen in the most minute ways, such as in the costumes of “minor/background” characters, helping to build each act in climax. The music score was exciting, whilst matching the level of drama and sophistication of the choreography, and was Wagnerian in nature, with tremendous depth of musical characterisation and tone-painting, mixed with a supple sentiment that likened to that of Strauss, all the while maintaining a budding, youthful, vitality, reinforcing the epic dramatic quintessence of the overall piece.
It’s safe to attribute the success of this multi-layered phenomenal production to the exquisite choreography and inception of the entire project – British choreographer Liam Scarlett has brought the piece to life whilst paying homage to the original intentions of Shelley’s themes, a sentiment that I cannot appropriately express my astronomical gratitude for.
Something that this rendition of the tale has given me, in a way I don’t believe any other art form could have, is in the communication of simple singular metaphorical ideas: how many different ways can you express something? “I love you” “I am ashamed” “Help me”. There wasn’t a single word of dialogue uttered in the entire production, but the conveying of the most crucial narrative points was imbued in the constant movements of the dancers and the motivic packaging of musical symbols, all of which left me feeling emotionally raw and desolate.
This production was not just a true depiction of the novel, but it brought parts of the story to life that I feel are neglected in common association with the mastery of the novel itself. Less common readings made of the story include the way it explores how we deal with grief and rejection, and gives a frightening insight into how far we could travel to experience closure. Not to mention how we could travel too far, way beyond the reaches of desolation and no return. The production explores this by focusing on characters, and presenting their dances in such an honest and upfront manner. The ballet also allows us to explore the lead female character’s perspective: she experiences death of loved ones and her own emotional turmoil whilst dealing with the horror of loving a man on the brink of madness. Perhaps a ballet production of this work was inevitable: its safe to say that some of these insights could only be brought to life through movement. It was an exciting new work filled with riches and treasures galore.