Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Frankenstein (Ensemble Theatre) - Street Theatre

Don't think about it! Just plunge in.

Playwright Nick Dear's re-telling of Mary Shelley's seminal horror novel Frankenstein is rankest melodrama, but Ensemble Theatre and director Mark Kilmurry pull it off in style.  But: Do Not Try This At Home, any amateur companies seeking to ride the wave of a familiar title. I'm not sure it would have worked at all without the unflinching commitment of a very talented cast, and principally a quite extraordinary physical and emotional performance by Lee Jones as the Monster.

The set is a polished circle surrounded by a curtain on a rail - reminiscent of the Bell King Lear of a couple of years ago - and lit by a collection of steampunky light bulbs liberally distributed at varying heights. It's effective, but not quite gothic enough for my taste and this particular story.  The ambience is enhanced by a solo cellist (Heather Stratford) playing creepy atmospheric music (by Elena Kats-Chernin) - in a very steampunk skirt.  (There's a lot of solo cello about theatre at the moment, has anyone else noticed?)

In lesser hands the opening sequence - the birth of the Monster - could well have become farcical, but in this production instead brought home the terror of a full-grown creature suddenly thrust into the world like a newborn baby, raw and blinking an uncomprehending.  I confess I was disappointed by the loincloth; I am no fan of gratuitous nudity in theatre, but this would not have been gratuitous, and it was the only part of the production that seemed a pulling of punches.  I also would have liked the Monster to have been a lot more monstrous in appearance, but I can see how that might have flirted with caricature, and that would have ruined everything.  As it is, Jones manages a twisted carriage with a powerful physical presence and a total emotional investment that is purely compelling.

He is ably matched by Andrew Henry as Victor Frankenstein - ultimately far more twisted and monstrous than his misbegotten experiment - though in one scene of high passion my mind did flit briefly to that episode of Friends where Joey is cast against Gary Oldman, who explains to him that truly Great Acting involves a considerable amount of spit.

The plot is ridiculous, and the language is so florid in places that  it could easily have risked silliness, but the momentum is so relentless, and Jones so unwavering in his performance, that the whole effect becomes convincing.  Just go with it.  The ultimate testament is that even my mercurial attention span did not regret the lack of an interval, and not once did I think of Peter Boyle.

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