Thursday, 31 October 2019

Non-review: Frankenstein

Not calling this a review mainly because I didn’t see the whole of the National Youth Theatre’s new production of Frankenstein; I also won’t be reviewing the cast, as they weren’t really responsible for me taking against the show so strongly. If you are in the cast reading this, don’t worry, Judi Dench couldn’t salvage Madame de Sade, why should you be expected to salvage this? Carl Miller’s new version of Mary Shelley’s classic story has the high concept of moving the action to the present day; instead of more general 19th century fears about where science could take us we have the very specific 21st century fear of where Artificial Intelligence is heading, and whether it could end up usurping us. So the monster becomes a robot with AI, whose creator ramps up its ability to understand and feel emotions to the point that it achieves a level of consciousness identical to a human’s; cue an existential crisis in the form of a murderous rampage.

Miller hasn’t been constrained by the details of Shelley’s story so I’ve got no idea why he’s tried to stick so closely to the structure which, like the original novel, has a framing device in an inhospitable Polar landscape. Except because, presumably, of the fact that there was meant to be a virtual reality section in the second act, there’s also another wraparound story before that one, placing us in a lecture about VR, that flashes back to the Polar expedition, which in turn flashes back to a point midway through the actual Frankenstein story, which then flashes back to the start of it. It means I was down to the last of my patience before we’d even met the title character (at which point we flashed back again to her childhood.)

It’s a structure that works fine on the page – and, crucially, if there’s a great mystery at the centre of the story: An absolutely essential fact often forgotten when adapting incredibly famous stories is that they are incredibly famous, so you can’t rely on building tension through something most of the audience already knows – but is incoherent on the stage. Instead of noticing this incoherence and trying to streamline it, director Emily Gray throws extra flourishes at the play; the actors’ movements and Hannah Wolfe’s costume designs take clear inspiration from the TV show Humans with a gimmick suggesting the cast are androids activated whenever they need to take on a role in the story. It all adds up to a confusing, dull mess and I felt there had to be better ways to spend the rest of the evening. Fortunately the young company are doing this in a rep season, so I’ll have the chance next week to see them in what will hopefully be a better showcase of their talents. In the meantime the NYT seem to have made up for Brexit not happening on Hallowe’en by delivering a horror almost as bad – and in the end someone did leave after all, but it was me at the interval.

Frankenstein by Carl Miller, based on the novel by Mary Shelley, is booking in repertory until the 30th of November at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre.

Running time: Advertised as 2 hours including interval.

Photo credit: Helen Murray.

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