Royal Ballet – Frankenstein – London

The Royal Ballet in Frankenstein.© Andrej Uspenski, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)
The Royal Ballet in Frankenstein.
© Andrej Uspenski, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)

Royal Ballet

London, Royal Opera House
5 March 2019

Could Liam Scarlett’s monstrous Frankenstein be fixed with more, better surgery? Evidently not, in this revival, three years after its creation. Scarlett has tinkered with the timing of his first three-act ballet but the pacing of his story telling remains wrong. He has stuck too closely to Mary Shelley’s book instead of rethinking her weird fantasy as a piece of theatre.

The heart of the matter is surely Victor Frankenstein’s reaction to his misbegotten creation, and how his rejection affects the Creature’s existence. Never mind that in the book, Victor runs away after his monster comes to life. In the ballet, the Creature does the running, while Victor crumples into a heap: end of Act I. After a long interval, we join the plot seven years later. We don’t yet know what the monster looks like (and won’t for a while, if seated on the left of the auditorium) or what has happened to him in the interim, other than a brief mugging.

What’s missing is an early encounter between Victor and the Creature, possibly as an hallucination during Victor’s fevered sleep. We need to see how the monster painfully learns to move his randomly assembled limbs. Instead, we’re presented in Act II with a classical ballet dancer wearing a stitched-together leotard. Did he go to a dance conservatoire to learn the language of his creator? How come he can perform male virtuoso steps, while he still has to imitate a child learning how to make a bow?

Sure, it’s a ballet and we can’t expect a ballet to make sense, can we? But the questions arise because of the mishandling of the Creature’s creation at the end of Act I. Up until the scene in the anatomy theatre, Scarlett has spent too much time on the back-story of Victor’s youth. There’s a lot of domestic drama, with a nascent romance between him and his adopted sister, Elizabeth. A notebook has to suffice as an indicator of Victor’s interest in science (and he was impressed as a child by an electric storm during a prologue).

He goes to university, where he falls under the influence of a power-crazed professor of anatomy. The tone of the experiments on a cadaver is uneasy. The students are silly asses, prancing with young female scrubbers and bullying one of their fellows, Henry Clerval. They have no respect for the corpse and nor has Victor, when he returns from a tavern in order to play around with body parts. Scarlett can’t tell us whether Victor is being curious or sacrilegious. He behaves like Dr Coppélius, consulting his notebook before fitting spare limbs into place, so rapidly that the audience giggles. The galvanising effect of the professor’s infernal machine is mightily impressive, worthy of a horror movie. The resulting Creature, though, is all too human, in spite of his stitches.

Act II reverts to the Frankenstein household’s activities in Geneva. We catch up with characters sketched in during Act I: Victor’s fiançée, Elizabeth, keener to wed than he appears to be; Justine, the stern housekeeper’s daughter, who is probably in love with Victor; Henry, Victor’s friend, who is probably in love with Elizabeth; widower father and his seven-year-old son, William. Everybody gets the chance to dance, including the corps de ballet as servants and guests at William’s birthday party.

Too many of the supporting characters are distractions – Henry in particular. He is the mistake Scarlett made with Benno in his recent production of Swan Lake: best friend hogs the limelight, while the principal character sulks moodily in the background. James Hay is outstanding as Henry, compounding the problem. Laura Morera is warm and loving in her many pas de deux with Victor, though they tell us little about the problems in their relationship. We know even less about Justine (Romany Pajdak), despite her presence from the early scenes of the ballet, an easily overlooked presence in drab beige.

Wei Wang in Frankenstein.© Andrej Uspenski, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)
Wei Wang in Frankenstein.
© Andrej Uspenski, courtesy the Royal Opera House. (Click image for larger version)

Eventually, the Creature makes his appearance. Unclothed and sexless, he resembles a disfigured baby, except that his physique is that of a dance athlete. Wei Wang, a guest from San Francisco Ballet (which shares the production) is both vulnerable and creepy. We have to learn from the synopsis that the Creature finds Victor’s notebook and learns how he came to be, and is all the more upset when Victor tears up the journal, disowning him. Bits of paper are never satisfactory imparters of important information in ballets.

Victor still hasn’t met his monster until after the Creature has killed young William and incriminated Justine for the murder. Wei Wang invests their confrontation with angry hurt and bewilderment, though once again only the synopsis can reveal that he begs for a female companion for himself. Mime won’t suffice. The Creature is the extreme Outsider in the ballet, expressing his alienation in high-flying jetés. Justine, a subsidiary outsider as a mere servant girl, gets lynched for being in the wrong place, a victim of the monster’s unsuspected malice. Pajdak is immensely sympathetic as Justine, but her gratuitous death at the end of Act II will be but one of many to come.

Act III is Ashton’s Cinderella ballroom territory, with Lowell Liebermann’s score echoing Prokofiev’s ballet music as well as Ravel’s La Valse. Henry takes centre stage as the Jester (or Benno). Elizabeth is ecstatically happy and clueless, while Victor is distracted by hallucinations. The Creature, though, is for real, unremarked by the wedding guests. Somehow, he knows how to partner women, including terrified Elizabeth, who sees him for the first time.

The body count mounts inexorably. Father Frankenstein is carried off – blink and you’ll miss his death.  Henry dies bravely, trying to defend Elizabeth. She is killed in front of Victor, in revenge for the Creature’s loneliness and lovelessness.  Only near the very end does Scarlett make it clear in dance terms that the Creature craves recognition as Frankenstein’s other self, echoing Victor’s frantic spins and leaps, sculpting the same classical ballet shapes. He is heartbroken when Victor kills himself, cradling his creator’s dead body before facing the flames of the burning Frankenstein manor.

John Macfarlane’s designs make the ballet spectacular. The 19th century anatomy theatre is a tour de force, filled with period details as well as Hammer Horror machinery. The only drawback to his spare settings of Acts I and III is that there is nowhere for the Creature to hide, other than a leafless bush or a ballroom staircase. Liebermann’s score is suitably narrative, with an appealing theme for the lonesome Creature. Scarlett’s many duets for the romantic couple, Victor and Elizabeth, are lovely, with the emphasis always on Elizabeth’s tender feelings and yearning backbends. Victor remains a porteur in their pas de deux, while Morera shows how Elizabeth evolves from a shy young thing to a concerned lover. Federico Bonelli can only look troubled, for the choreography can’t distinguish between disgust, guilt, remorse and fear.

In the end, any theatre or cinema audience will be more interested in Frankenstein’s monster than in his creator. Wei Wang seems to morph from a soft manikin made of clay to a powerful predator (and an improbably fine dancer). It’s not his fault that any concern we have for him as a rejected, misunderstood alien comes far too late in the misbegotten ballet.

About the author

Jann Parry

A long-established dance writer, Jann Parry was dance critic for The Observer from 1983 to 2004 and wrote the award-winning biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan: 'Different Drummer', Faber and Faber, 2009. She has written for publications including The Spectator, The Listener, About the House (Royal Opera House magazine), Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA), Stage Bill (USA) and Dancing Times. As a writer/producer she worked for the BBC World Service from 1970 to 1989, covering current affairs and the arts. As well as producing radio programmes she has contributed to television and radio documentaries about dance and dancers.

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