Frankenstein - The Royal Ballet Company - Liam Scarlett
It seems like a strange choice for a ballet - why should a gothic horror story lend itself to a classical form of dance? The nature of the production makes this question resonate even more urgently; it is a production in which the skill of the performers transcends the somewhat stagnant staging.
The first act is unsatisfying. The effect of the huge sets is incredulity - action confined to small spaces . This presents a somewhat old-fashioned mode for story-telling. The drama is heightened to a point where the dancers must resort to histrionics - acting that is punctuated by flicks and gasps as if we were watching a silent movie or exaggerated amateur dramatics. The baby abandoned by the death of his mother results in a clichéd clawing of hands and banging of fists - expressionism familiar to us from such films as Nosferatu. This style of acting has not aged well. I remained unmoved, and a little despairing that this is the art-form which demands so much attention in my family life. It feels foolish to be investing any amount of time, effort or money in something so unsophisticated.
There is little doubt that this production has been well resourced. The attention to detail in the set and costume is worthy, but ultimately ineffective. Theatre - even dance theatre - has had to move beyond these literal representations of historical period, because compared to screen, an audience at the theatre will always feel somewhat disappointed and short-changed. So the wooden panelling, and brass rails in the lecture theatre might make for a convincing interior, but the machine that sparks life into the body of the monster is woeful: a discarded prop from the time when the Tardis was steam-punk. Thomas Whitehead throws himself into the role of the austere and aloof professor with skilful nonchalance. He establishes an authority which has some grounding in believability and authenticity - such a role might easily lend itself to becoming a pantomime villain.
Also in the first act, I fail to see how this use of a female corps de ballet can be justified in the 21st century. They are either assistants of the professor seemingly being groped by the male students, or prostitutes in a tavern obviously being groped by the male students, but also allowed to do a little bit of groping of their own. These two scenes require rigorous dramaturgical examination. Their contribution to the story is tenuous, apart from delaying our introduction to the monster.
The remaining two acts offer something different. There is a relief in moving from claustrophobic interiors to a an icy exterior. We also return to the world that ballet presents most effectively: courtly life. Act two gives us a birthday party, and act three depicts a wedding - we are once again in the environ of some of our best-loved narrative ballets from Nutcracker to La Fille Mal Gardé: the spectacle of society's dance rituals. The game of blind man's buff during the party scene is tantalising. There is a lovely jeopardy in watching a dancer dance when blind-folded - even if it is a trick - and even more so when one of the participants of the game is a hideously deformed monster. Steven McRae makes for a terrific monster - full of the tragedy of cosmic abandonment, an elegant human spirit contained in a deformed exterior. The twelve year old, Guillem Cabrera Espinach is breath-taking. A charismatic and beguiling performance from one so young, precociously capable of embodying a role completely. Their pas de deux is perhaps the highlight of the evening.
The wedding dance in Act Three has something Senecan about it. The ghosts of those murdered reappear, but like Macbeth or Richard III, only Frankenstein can see them. Bonelli cuts a heroic figure, but this is the first time we experience any sympathy for his Frankenstein. He is given insufficient characterisation which is a shame because period costume suits him. He wears it well.
The ending is problematic. In having Frankenstein kill himself we are left with the impression of a victim succumbing to weakness, rather than a hero with the courage to endure the tragic consequences of one misguided action. This Frankenstein is already yielding to suffering too early in the narrative. This, for me, is the central flaw in the story-telling.
The novel is epic. It sprawls across the wastelands of the Arctic as the creator and his prodigy - both abandoned by civilisation and trying to make sense of their existence. Staging Frankenstein as a ballet risks resulting in something over-contained. With the loss of the landscape, the vastness of the loneliness is also sacrificed. As moving as Steven McRae might be as this strange forsaken creature, the story becomes trivialised, glimpsed only through the point of view of a wealthy and somewhat self-absorbed household.
One question remains about this production: did nobody consider the role of the women? All the women in the story are victims - needlessly suffering at the hands of men and unable to fight back. Offering the women no way out of their plight is by default condoning their condition. This is what lingers after seeing the production. Our most important and creative ballet company seems to be endorsing the oppression of its own women - an anachronism in sentiment as well as staging. We end where we began - this is a surprising choice of material for a new ballet.