ENSEMBLE THEATRE’S ‘FRANKENSTEIN’

Director Mark Kilmurry can sit comfortably in his artistic director’s chair and feel pretty good about what he’s doing at the Ensemble. I managed to catch his production of Nick Dear’s play ‘Frankenstein’ just before it closed and I’m glad I did. It is worthy of praise and so here it is.

Frankenstein is not an easy story to tell. Mary Shelley’s gothic tale has done the rounds of black and white movies and is associated with a square-headed, piecemeal created monster, outcast and wandering the countryside terrifying the locals. We treat Frankenstein much like we do the boat people. Ironic really, isn’t it? That the fear of the strange still sends us into becoming dispassionate, fire-wielding members of One Nation or today’s equivalent. So the story is not new but it is still oh so relevant.

There are plenty of motifs that emerge from the play as highlighted by Kilmurry and his team: the father and son relationship becomes very pertinent, especially adding in the element of science and nature. Each father fails his son in one form or another and vice versa. The play also delves into broader themes like the right to life, where does it begin and end, who has the right to have it or end it and of course, amongst all the fear and death we see man’s overriding fight for survival and what action he will take to secure it. Most thematically prominent is the idea of love, our desire to belong and be someone’s most important other and the pain of it eluding you. Kilmurry has explored these very real themes using the most unreal of devices and has captured the passing of time without those jumps eluding his audience with the smoothest transitions possible.

Kilmurry’s opening image of Lee Jones as the creature, breathing into life with an animalistic screeching and clawing of discovery, like a bird emerging from the egg, alone and terrified at his new awareness, unable to comprehend his own body, let alone sentience is an uncomfortable but powerful start to the play. I love how this is then book-ended by his master/father, Victor Frankenstein’s (Andrew Henry) own movements, clawing away from death in the harsh snow and desolation of the North Pole.

The use of live sound effects created by the cast (Foley artist style) with sound designer Daryl Wallis is another great touch, especially utilised at the start before the creature finds words. Sound is used to create our dialogue, almost like the world of the caveman before he evolves into ‘man’. And what a man the creature becomes. If the adage of ‘we learn from what we see’ is true, this is a damning portrayal of man.

My other favourite moment of the play is when the creature is in the bedroom with Frankenstein’s bride, Elizabeth (Katie Fitchett). When the creature is telling Elizabeth of all the things he has learnt from Frankenstein and humanity and utters the words, ‘He taught me to lie’, we know the worst is about to unfold in front of us. Once again, we examine our own tendency to want to believe the best of outcomes is possible, that with the villains in our narratives, the bad can be reformed, transgressions forgiven. We want a happy ending. We want love to triumph. Don’t walk into this play and expect it. This is no Tarzan and Jane. It’ll slam your hopes into your face like a slap on a cold winter’s day (ie- it’s gonna hurt, got it?)

Lee Jones took this play under Kilmurry’s artful direction and turned what can be a cheesy melodrama into a performance of great integrity, manipulating its potential flaws into a sophisticated interpretation. Jones is a creature of steel who can contort every muscle into elastic. He holds such tension and anguish throughout the play that it was a relief to see what he actually looked like during the curtain call, even though he hid none of his features during the show. He was as transformed as I am since my last passport photo. Given I was almost arrested in Copenhagen for travelling on someone else’s passport, even though it was actually mine, and the phrase describing the passport photo by officials was ‘This is terrible. You look 70’, I’m clearly suggesting Jones uses his physicality like a professional. You would not know they were the same person.

The use of the cello by Heather Stratfold and composed by Elena Kats-Chernin was another smart device. It’s lonely haunting melody took us on an auditory journey matching the creature’s own. Simone Romaniuk’s design aesthetic also captured the cold and clinical cycle of the play, using the curtains to hide and reveal, complemented by Nick Higgins lighting, creating questions of nightmares that lurk in the darkness in this murky gothic world. It feels like we are always in the misty confines of night and there’s danger in its shadows. Romaniuk’s costumes add to the grime and stripped experimental nature of man’s ego over his morals and still fulfils a gothic simplicity of time and place.

Let’s see more of Kilmurry in the vision of the theatre because he just might bring the pieces of the Ensemble creature back to life with works like this.

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4 comments

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That Guy May 8, 2013 at 8:00 am

I didn't love this as much as you seem to have – I think it's a case of the casting being a little unbalanced. Lee Jones kinda runs away with the play and Andrew Henry as the title character comes across as an ineffectual wimp by comparison – not the arrogant nemesis he should be. Anyway, my review is at http://cantheatrewatcher.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/frankenstein-ensemble-theatre.html

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Anonymous May 12, 2013 at 1:57 pm

Saying what an actor 'should be' is a very arrogant way to approach a review. I loved this play. I agree with Janes review that this is a brilliant production particularly brilliant for the Ensemble Theatre to break out of its usual shtick and do something so bold and imaginative. Killmurry is on a roll and I can't wait to see his production of The Glass Menagerie. I doubt we will be getting the another Sunshine Coast Tennessee Williams. I don't respond to defend the show against 'That Guy'… But if you watched this play and couldn't walk out afterwards and realise that this play is the monsters vehicle then I think your criticism should be directed towards the writing rather than judging Killmurrys casting. I saw this play in London when the two actors swapped the roles each night, that in itself was a spectacle but Nick Dear has not written Frankenstein the character with anywhere near the complexity or detail or love that he has given the monster, so my issue like many others is that Frankenstein does not get a fair share of the argument so by the end due to the structure of Nick Dears play, you love the creature, admire the actor playing the creature but Frankenstein is easily forgotten. Having seen the national theatre production twice (alternating monsters) I thought that Henry was a better Frankenstein than both of those fine actors. He wasn't playing a bombastic, arrogant, self loving individual, which is a frankenstein we are prejudice to see, he was a young man, with feeling, with love and with aspiration. I think it is just a shame the script is not even close to being balanced and a shame Killmurry wasn't a little bolder to give us two monsters, and two frankensteins. For my two cents 'that guy', you wanted something going into the show, you should try next time to let yourself be surprised.

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That Guy May 13, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I find it ironic you complain about me using the term "should be", and then immediately complain abut Sunshine Coast Tenessee Williams….

But anyway… yes, it is the monster's vehicle, but part of the effect of it is when the monster is approached with characters of equal strength. I found that in the case of Michael Ross' performance as the blind man (who has a very strong moral sense that he imparts) and Katie Fitchett as Elizabeth (who's fully capable of holding up her end of a scene). I just didn't see that kind of strength from Henry. I didn't see any feeling, any love, any aspiration, all I saw was a wet blanket of blah.

Now, that's the nature of live performance, I may have seen a performance where Henry just didn't come through with the goods in ways that he did come through with the goods in your performance.

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jane May 14, 2013 at 12:29 am

I must admit, Andrew Henry was a bit lacklustre at the start but he warmed into the performance as it went on. But I was so engrossed by Jones that I forgave the dropped energy of Henry because he brought it in the end.

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