Frankenstein Live emphasizes language over spectacle
By Annemarie Brissenden
How does one reckon with the horror of one’s own creation?
It’s a question posed by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and one asked of the audience in Frankenstein Live premiering this month at the Walmer Centre Theatre.
“[Frankenstein] was so obsessed with creating life. He achieved it, but abandoned it out of fear. That’s at the core of a lot of the troubles we create in society,” explains Dora-nominated Tom Carson, who has previously directed 2000 Candles, The Ghosts of Mariposa, and a touring production of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
It’s one of the themes the director hopes to explore through the performance, which he characterizes as an immersive reading that emphasizes the richness of Shelley’s language over the lurid spectacle found in other adaptations of the nineteenth-century gothic novel.
“Other versions really abandon the language and go for the sensational aspects of the story,” says Carson. “We’re more interested in embracing the language of…and getting at the core ideas of the novel.”
So they’ve not only stayed faithful to the novel, but truthful to the way Shelley laid out the plot. Yet condensing such a big novel with a lot of ideas was a daunting task for playwright Warren MacDonald.
“There’s little to no dialogue in the book,” relates MacDonald. “The challenge was imagining the dialogue, how the characters would speak to each other.”
The production centres on the three main characters of the novel: Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer pursuing scientific discovery in the North Pole; Victor Frankenstein, a Prometheus-like figure pursuing the being he created; and Elizabeth, the woman he fell in love with.
(“I’m not saying whether there’s a monster,” says Carson.)
Set amidst the creaking ice and blustery gales of the north, Frankenstein finds Walton about to sacrifice his entire crew in pursuit of discovery, and says, notes Carson, “I have a warning for you”.
It’s a warning that the audience is also urged to heed.
“We ask people to listen to what’s going on in the story,” says Carson. With the action stripped away, the audience has to use their imagination to get into the tale, and that’s where the horror lies.
MacDonald describes it as a “psychological horror: it’s the terror in [Frankenstein’s] mind of what he’s done”.
The intimate space of Walmer Centre Theatre is an ideal setting for creating that horror, say both MacDonald and Carson, with the latter adding that the theatre’s architecture is pretty close to a neo-gothic style, which “adds an interesting aspect”.
They are also relying on an original score composed by Douglas Romanow to amplify the creepy atmosphere.
Romanow, who jumped at the opportunity to create the soundscapes and music for the show, says Shelley was “one of the first writers who exposed me to the tension between humanity and technology”.
He’s fascinated by how “to juxtapose human elements in music against technological elements”, and in the play uses that juxtaposition to create tension. He also uses the sounds of the far north — sounds of frost and cold and the rigid creaking of the boat — to add to what Carson describes as “the kind of scary that creeps up on you and gets into your mind”.
“The music is nice and eerie and creaky and atmospheric,” adds MacDonald.
While the “horrific story” is about what happens when you pursue an obsession without a moral framework, says Carson, the production is also about “trying to get into language concepts that are fundamentally very frightening”.
For MacDonald, “it’s a very human story…. The main emphasis is on the personal relationship between the monster and Victor. The monster wants his creator to…fulfill his responsibility to him and provide him with a suitable mate. All of us share that longing, like the monster.”
He thinks “it’s a relevant story that people need to hear and think about in a very different context”, but if the play “drives people to read the book and think about a great piece of literature”, that’s good too.
Frankenstein Live runs from Oct. 22 to Nov. 8 at the Walmer Centre Theatre (188 Lowther Ave.). Tickets are $25. For further information or to buy tickets, please visit www.frankensteinlive.ca.