Oh, this is such a shame. This new ballet of Frankenstein by the Royal Ballet is a missed opportunity. Liam Scarlett is a talented choreographer but there are big structural issues here that are impossible to ignore, and completely undermine this sumptuous production.
For his first full-length new work for Royal Ballet, Liam chose to adapt Mary Shelley’s mighty gothic masterpiece for the stage. It seemed an inspired idea – so many ideas and themes to explore, and a great opportunity to blend contemporary dance with more classical ballet. Only something got lost along the way because the plot in the resulting show seems to have gone AWOL.
The central axis of Mary Shelley’s book was that between the Creature and his Creator – between Victor Frankenstein and the body he brought to life one stormy night. It was an exploration of human vanity, pride, parental responsibility and even Man’s challenge to God himself.
What we have here is the central axis instead being between Victor (Frederico Bonelli) and his betrothed, Elizabeth (danced with real tenderness by Laura Morera). The Creature (the fantastic Steven McRae) is reduced to being a subplot, to lurk in the shadows for great swathes of the show. In fact, he isn’t even created for the first hour.
I feel as if this show’s creatives and I have read a completely different version of Frankenstein. This production, instead of examining the motivations of Victor, turns him into a tragic hero whose one moment of madness scuppers his chance of true love.
If in your adaptation of Frankenstein, you make Victor the tragic hero and the Creature the villain, you’ve missed the point.
And whilst we’re on the subject, if you’re going to make Elizabeth a central character then you have to give her depth. She has to be fully fleshed out. Yet here she is a whimpering damsel in distress whose sole attribute seems to be that she is kind. So why frame her like this? Because, of course, she exists as an opposite to the slutty wenches that make up the alternative love interests for Victor in his heady days at Uni. (And, obvs, we see Victor as a good guy as he turns those wenches down!). Slutty or saintly – apparently that’s your only option as a female character in this production.
Liam Scarlett is, for sure, an immensely talented choreographer and there are some terrific moments in the show.
Steven McRae is damn fine as the Creature, his blend of physicality and fragility is beautiful. The highlight was, for me, the pas-de-deux between the Creature and William, Victor’s younger brother. For a few tantalising moments the Creature has a tender, playful exchange with a boy who judges him on only his soul. But William’s glimpse of the hideous Creature’s appearance leads to a ferocious climax as the Creature strangles the boy to stop him screaming.
And the final Act is wonderful. Having Victor, on his wedding night, haunted by the literal ghosts of all those who have died because of the Creature is powerful, as is the final pas-de-deux between Creature and Creator. The muscular fight framed with desperation and regret.
But until this point, Victor shows little guilt for his culpability in the Creature’s many murders. When Justine is wrongly hanged for the murder of William, there’s no protests from Victor. This could have been a moment for a brilliant solo for a character torn up with angst and the struggle over whether to speak out or stay silent. But nope.
Oh, this could have been so good. That’s what’s so frustrating about this. Frankenstein could have been amazing. John MacFarlane’s production design is terrific. And the music from Lowell Liebermann has a perfect blend of high drama and passages of tender reflection. And Liam’s choreography is pretty much faultless. But it’s all a hollow shell. Where was the dramatist?
This production was crying out for such a person to come in and give this production a plot, a story arc. To frame the characters and the themes to give this production both power and drive. Instead, the result is that when the rousing finale comes – the Creature weeping over his dead Master – you feel nothing. And simply because that hasn’t been earnt. The Creature has been a clichéd sideshow and all of a sudden we’re meant to care that he’s lost the one man he wanted to love him? Nope, sorry. If you wanted us to feel that, the whole previous three hours needed to be completely different.
I applaud the Royal Ballet’s commitment to creating new work – it’s crucial and exciting – but, please, invest in the creation of story as much as the music and steps. Liam Scarlett is only thirty. He is brilliant but is young and he needs support. Don’t let him flounder like this otherwise you risk undermining the immense talent and potential he has.
Royal Opera House, London to May 27, 2016
1. Frankenstein. Steven McRae as The Creature, Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein and Alexander Campbell as Clerval ©ROH 2016. Photo by Bill Cooper
2. Frankenstein. Laura Morera as Elizabeth Lavenza and Federico Bonelli as Victor Franksenstein. ©ROH 2016. Photographed by Bill Cooper
3. Frankenstein. Steven McRae as The Creature and Federico Bonelli as Victor Frankenstein. ©ROH 2016. Photographed by Bill Cooper