Frankenstein (shake & stir) – theatre review

Shake & Stir’s adaption of Mary Shelly’s classic gothic horror novel Frankenstein is thrilling in both pace and spectacle. From its beginning, the company leans into the scale and theatrical potential of the epic story of young scientist Victor Frankenstein’s creation of a sentient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. The colossal storytelling starts aboard a North-Pole-bound ship with fictional correspondence between adventurer Captain Robert Walton and his sister, Margaret Walton Saville. After the crew’s rescue of a nearly-frozen Victor Frankenstein (Darcy Brown), Walton is warned by the fellow scientist of the dangers of turning healthy passion into obsession. Things are then hastened along into Victor’s story with revolve stage entrances and exits, as well as abundant smoke effects in contribution also to the gothic sensibility that pervades the show’s entire aesthetic, capturing the novel’s unsettling atmosphere.

In work with Guy Webster’s meticulous sound design (including amplification of an apex, organ-filled ‘He is ready!” creature reveal) and Trent Suidgeest’s moody lighting, many striking and sometimes tense moments are created as we observe protagonist Victor’s desire to understand the world, manifesting itself into his at-university creation of a hideous humanoid (Jeremiah Wray) and then, in what is almost like a modern dance sequence, his Creation’s angular stumble about in find of his infant feet of balance and coordination.

Although we don’t yet see the grotesque reality of the Creature’s face (or the makeup designed by Steven Boyle’s company Formation Effects) behind the shadow of his cloaked movements, we know of his discomfort as after he flees to live alone in the wilderness where he grows fond of a poor family, discretely collecting firewood for them and performing other secret tasks to ease their burdens, while also leaning to speak and read through his observation of them and discovery of discarded books.

It is from here that Wray’s standout performance is really revealed. As the physical embodiment of human folly, his unnamed Creature walks the fine line between fear and pathos that is so integral to Shelley’s consideration of what makes someone a monster, and at the core of the integrity of Nelle Lee’s adaption, which goes straight to the heart of a story so often inaccurately represented in pop-culture reimaginings.

Complex characterisation is at heart of show’s sophistication. This is seen in Victor’s navigation of the intellectual invigoration and emerging guilt that arises from his actions and in the Creature’s tear between a desire for love and his thirst for revenge. And when Wray delivers the maligned Creature’s despair to-creator monologue about his anguished suffering, lonely loss of benevolence and deep longing for something more, it is shared with the emotional power of a Shakespearean soliloquy of the Shylock ‘If you prick us do we not bleed?’ sort.

The cast of six (Brown, Wray, Tony Cogin, Jodie Le Vesconte, Nelle Lee and Nick James) sees all but Brown and Wray doubling in roles, which allows for demonstration of each actor’s versatility. Lee, for example, effectively both captures the frivolous play of Victor’s young brother William and shows the strength and compassion of Victor’s later-wife Elizabeth in wedding-night confrontation with the Creature.

While the adaptation’s taut structure adds to the tension, the rush along of action and quick scene successions puts onus on the audience to keep up, especially when Victor’s dialogue is sometimes so rushed through. Yet, the work’s emphasis on production design ensures aesthetic engagement is delivered in abundance. Craig Wilkinson’s video design is used to seamlessly transition scenes and establish setting and time to move us through the seasons, and Josh McIntosh’s design is considered to let the audience in to all of the narrative’s perspectives, such as when we simultaneously observe the Creature huddled outside and family life within the humble within-the-woods cottage. The story’s integral violence is not shied away from, but also handled even-handedly and with poise. And its period costumes are deceptively-simple but none-the-less stunning.

Frankenstein serves as yet another in a growing line of triumphs for Shake & Stir, whose core successes have come from reinterpretations of legendary literature for the contemporary stage. Director Nick Skubij has curated a stunning theatrical event that is faithful to its 1818 morality tale source material, yet also thrilling in its modern storytelling style, (complete with some collective audience jump scares) and it is certainly easy to appreciate the need for additional shows to already have been added to its all-too-short QPAC season.

Frankenstein is at QPAC’s The Playhouse in Brisbane until 28 October 2023

Meredith Walker
For more of Meredith Walker’s writings on theatre, check out Blue Curtains Brisbane

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