A Universal Monster
Like Stoker’s Dracula, Burrough’s Tarzan, or Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein has been endlessly reimagined for book, stage, and screen. So much so that the idea of Frankenstein as a fixed, stable identity, either monster or maker, is difficult to nail down. An idea which provides a launching pad for Michael West’s curious adaptation FRNKNSTN, beautifully realised in a supremely riveting, one man performance by Louis Lovett. Described as a mutation rather than an adaptation, it might be more accurate to call West’s FRNKNSTN an abridgement that remains faithful to much of Shelley’s original, with a mutated, if obvious, twist in the tail. One that references yet another legendary monster a little too conveniently. Still, if West’s simplified story is not always as innovative as it might have been, Lovett’s telling of the story is nothing short of remarkable.
A re-presentation as much as a re-imagining, West’s script remains steeped in Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece, with the Godlike Victor Frankenstein relaying the tale of his man made monster made in his own image. Wreaking havoc on the lives of Victor’s family and loved ones, the monster often destroys that which he loves, seeking revenge against his maker. Yet Victor finds himself being accused of their deaths because of sharing his DNA with his elusive creation. As Victor desperately pleads his case, the monster in the mirror might well be closer than he might care to admit.
If the DNA device solidifies FRNKNSTN inside a contemporary landscape, outside of this it serves as little more than a passing remark, with West’s tale strolling down Shelley’s familiar path a little too faithfully to really break new ground, despite its new, yet obvious ending. Theatrically, too, the mutation isn’t always as innovative or as satisfying as it might have been, still amounting to a man telling a story, often in a conventional manner, on a relatively conventional stage.
While Shelley’s tale provides West's foundation, Theatre Lovett’s production happily references iconic Frankenstein motifs from elsewhere. Including James Whale’s classic for Universal Pictures from 1931, adapted from a 1927 play by Peggy Webling which first named the creature Frankenstein. Here Boris Karloff’s creature is steeped in German Expressionist values of shadow and light, all superbly evoked by Sarah Jane Shiels' powerful lighting design. Dunk Murphy’s broody composition and sound design is similarly effective in establishing a dark mood and atmosphere, even if Lovett’s own personal soundscape, particularly during the forest scenes, proves to be equally impressive.
Universal Pictures references run the spectrum from the iconic to the comic, with many moments veering as much towards Abbott and Costello as Karloff and Whale. Due in no small measure to Lovett’s extraordinary performance. One whose heightened, physical vocabulary accentuates and underscores the dialogue, often foregrounding the comedy, suggesting a laconic Robin Williams at times or a maniacal Renfield at others. If comedy often unsettles the tone without always subverting it, director Muireann Ahern achieves an admirable, if uneasy balance, as well an enabling Lovett’s terrific performance.
Like the replicant, Roy Batty, and his maker, Eldon Tyrell, in Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, the Frankenstein legend can be reimagined in fresh, challenging, and iconic ways. In so far as West’s FRNKNSTN honours Shelley’s masterpiece, it does it well, even if it can feel a little too familiar for those acquainted with the original, and perhaps a little too thin for those coming to it for the first time. Throughout, Ger Clancy’s set design cleverly hints of a mental institution, a prison, or a laboratory, opening up familiar Frankenstein landscapes. But its real job is to frame and support Lovett then get out of his way. For Lovett’s monstrously brilliant performance is unforgettable, being the stuff of both madness and genius.
The Abbey Theatre presents Theatre Lovett’s FRNKNSTN by Michael West, which runs at The Peacock Stage of the Abbey Theatre until September 1