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.