Blending gothic horror with morality, Matthew Xia’s adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN at the Royal Exchange stays true to Mary Shelley’s classic tale

FRANKENSTEIN at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Mancheste

FRANKENSTEIN at The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo Credit: Johan Persson

Blending gothic horror with morality, Matthew Xia’s gripping adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN stays true to Mary Shelley’s classic tale

It’s been two hundred years since Mary Shelley penned the dark, gothic tale FRANKENSTEIN. Since 1818, Victor Frankenstein and his macabre monster has captivated audiences across the world with the Royal Exchange marking the landmark anniversary with a new stage adaption directed by Matthew Xia.

Alone, tired and trapped in a mountain of ice, FRANKENSTEIN opens with Arctic explorer Captain Robert Walton (Ryan Gage) writing a letter to his beloved sister Margaret, when suddenly out on the frozen wastes, the body of Victor Frankenstein (Shane Zaza) is dragged on board. Wretched and barely alive, Frankenstein recounts a story of ambition, murder and the creation of a grotesque creature (Harry Attwell) in his final hours. As the horror of the story sinks in, the ice breaks and the ship creaks to life, but is there one last chapter in this bloody account?

Blending gothic horror with themes of morality, Xia’s gripping adaptation of FRANKENSTEIN stays true to Shelley’s classic tale. April De Angelis’ multi-layered script not only retains the heart and soul of Shelley’s piece but also her original framing device. As Frankenstein relates his story to Walton, the piece move at a swift pace, from Frankenstein’s early childhood and his studies in Ingolstadt to his eventual obsession to bring an inanimate creature to life.

Zaza delivers a strong performance as Frankenstein, his ambition and arrogance leading to the scientist’s eventual downfall as he sinks into madness and belated guilt. Gage equally shines as Walton but is largely underused, particularly in the second half, in which he is frozen to a chair silently watching events unfold.

Ryan Gage (Captain Walton) & Shane Zaza (Victor Frankenstein) in FRANKENSTEIN.

Ryan Gage (Captain Walton) & Shane Zaza (Victor Frankenstein) in FRANKENSTEIN. Photo: Johan Persson

The bit everyone is waiting for, of course, is when the creature is brought to life which is suitably dramatic and chilling. Using a zigzag of neon light, lighting designer Johanna Town blinds the theatre in white light before plunging in into darkness as the creature is finally revealed. Swathed in layers of dusty black fabrics, Harry Attwell’s Creature is both terrifying and vile, scarred and stitched together with evil looking eyes and lank straggles of hair. Lumbering ungainly, Atwell’s creature is pathetic and needy, yet achieves a thrilling, frenzied melodrama in the strangling scenes.

A couple of scenes are curiously downplayed, particularly the sequence in which Frankenstein constructs a companion for the Creature only to pull the plug at the last minute. Xia’s decision to rely on prosthetics and stage theatrics is also a little predictable. As organs float in jars, dismembered body parts are crammed into hidden boxes within the floor and the stage plunges into darkness, there are no real surprises here and this production doesn’t really alters one’s perception of this much-analysed story.

That said, there is an underlying sense of uneasiness throughout and on the whole, Xia succeeds in bringing Shelley’s psychologically unnerving horror to life on stage. While this production may not deliver the radical thrill of Danny Boyle’s 2011 production for the National Theatre, it is entertaining nevertheless and a loyal tribute to Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece.

3.5 out of 5 stars

FRANKENSTEIN at the Royal Exchange, Manchester runs until 14 April.