“Are you here for the evacuation?!”
By Tom Barry
Frankenstein, a name that resounds throughout the Anglosphere. Mary Shelley’s magnum opus is literary legend, and so Theatre Mill have set themselves no easy task in bringing it to the stage, in a new adaption by writer and director Nick Lane. Retold in frame narrative, the seminal gothic horror is raised to life by a cast of three astounding actors each with supple, varied performances and an original setting shrouded by shadow and uncertainty.
York Medical Society (founded in 1832) is a hidden gem of a building, its Victorian austerity taken full advantage of here. It is the first time any play has been performed within its confines, which thrum with the sound of foreboding as tungsten bulbs flicker lowly in the half-light, casting the blood-streaked walls with a sickly pallor, the colour of jaundice. A troupe of front of house artists proceed with palpable urgency to ease the audience into its role (arguably the most important of all: an unresponsive audience is the death of any performance, especially one that relies on ratcheting tension). I ask one “is there an interval?”; “yes sir, but not all of us may be alive” she replies. I decide to take my chances.
The performance space itself is dressed to resemble a field hospital in a city under siege, with medical diagrams displaying the inner workings of the human body in gruesome detail. Taking place after the events of the novel, Lane contrives to bring Victor Frankenstein back to Ingolstadt: the city of his studies, the place where he created his Monster. He arrives, his maddened and fractured mind incapable of anything but senseless babble, into the care of a brusque doctor and an erratic nurse. And so, coaxed by psychoactive cocktails, he gradually relates his dread biography. The sound and lighting design are both exemplary, making full use of what little room is afforded them to imbue as much ambience as possible; the real outside feels a world away.
Victor is portrayed as not just a fervent atheist, but explicitly seeking to topple the tyranny of God by ‘curing’ death
This is not Lane’s first stage adaption, and it shows; the script cuts like a scalpel to the heart of the tale , as we witness Victor’s childhood of curiosity, loss and neglect driving him to succeed where none else have before. The character’s, their relations and motivations are given full scope here where other adaptions of the text skip them entirely. The action is lightning-paced, with frequent transitions between past and present handled effortlessly, and smoothly enough not to hold back the play’s velocity. Lane is clearly not afraid to grapple intensely with his source material, with a focus on the ramifications of artificial life if the giving of life is for God, and what qualms we should have (if any: Victor is portrayed as not just a fervent atheist, but explicitly seeking to topple the tyranny of God by ‘curing’ death).
Unfortunately, the price Lane pays for this is a formidable density of exposition cluttering the first half, an urgency drop in the second, and on several occasions the play lingers too long on a single point, made too obviously to feel profound. But its marriage of gratifying faithfulness to the novel and gripping originality make up for these shortcomings. The titular ‘revelations’ manifest in a way that I had never before considered, and alter my entire perspective on the Frankenstein legend.
It is the actors then who elevate this exhilarating if problematic script from good to great. Richard Keightly embodies Victor with unyielding ferocity, and supported by his comrades Viktoria Kay and Zach Lee, the three engage in a feat of extended character gymnastics amongst the best I’ve seen; every character besides Victor is depicted adroitly by Kay and Lee, almost chameleonic. Barely a foot from the audience, their composure never seems to flag, and demanded an attentiveness I was eager to give.
Frankenstein Revelations stands as one of the most visceral and enjoyable shows I’ve seen in York. See it while you can.
Frankenstein Revelations is performing at the York Medical Society, Stonegate till the 25th of February. Tickets are available on the door and online.