Lally Katz's fearless adaptation of Mary Shelley's text gets a Victorian premiere, almost a decade after it premiered at Sydney Theatre Company
Almost from the moment of its original publication, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein became one of the defining myths of the modern age. Harnessing all the wonder and terror of the Renaissance – when a geocentric view of the world gave way to a heliocentric one – and combining that with the rapid technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, Shelley tapped into the deep ambivalence surrounding humankind’s place in the universe. When Victor Frankenstein creates his monster he is indulging in the ultimate hubris but he is also at a kind of evolutionary zenith, stripping God of his power and inserting himself in his place. If he finds his creation hideous, it’s because he has created it in his own image.
Playwright Lally Katz inverts this by writing the part of the creature as a beautiful young woman (Chantelle Jamieson). Now when Frankenstein (Michael McStay) sees her and finds her abhorrent, it says more about his own warped psyche than it does about any unnatural act of divine usurpation. Katz retains much of the novel’s dynamic between the two characters, from the rejection of the creator, through the murder of Victor’s loved ones, to the creature’s plea for a mate – she even has a showdown on the arctic ice that is more satisfying than Shelley’s climax – but she introduces an element of gender that she then failures to explore.
To anyone familiar with Katz’s work, an adaptation of Frankenstein may seem an odd choice; she is a playwright concerned far less with grand philosophical statements than with quirky, personal observation, and her style of wry comedy is worlds away from the lofty declamation of Shelley. The result is a curious grafting of both modes, with Victor carrying the bulk of the heightened prose and the creature often coming across as a wily contemporary teenager.
Theatre company Don’t Look Away seem to have been watching Stephen Nicolazzo’s work for Little Ones Theatre, and probably Sister’s Grimm too, because their aesthetic is remarkably similar: bold colour palette, arch and ironic performances, surprising musical numbers. Some of it works brilliantly – Victor delivering an ode to his fiancé as a New Romantic pop song is genius – but some of it crashes. Most of the other musical numbers, for example, seem tacked on and laboured, despite the consistency of their period.
Given the jokey attitude, director Phil Rouse elicits some unusual and strangely affecting performances from the leads. Jamieson is energetic and bouncy as the creature, although the sense of violent resentment is largely missing. McStay is terrific as the doomed and narcissistic Victor, lurching determined towards his own destruction. Martelle Hunt’s set and costume design are also arresting, with their deliberate anachronisms and kitsch mountain backdrop. Richard Whitehouse’s lighting is excellent, highly suggestive and deeply atmospheric.
Lally Katz has turned to embedded cultural mythology before, with A Golem Story for Malthouse Theatre, but there’s a sense of ambivalence about this work. The work is strongest when she deals directly with the novel’s central theme, and attempts to subvert or challenge the material feel almost bolted on. The casting of a young woman as the creature isn’t in itself enough of a challenge or subversion, so the audience is left wondering at this awkward hybrid. Maybe that is the point; that any telling of this tale will leave us hobbled and unfulfilled, abandoning our god to a world of unreason and madness.