Frankenstein, Royal Ballet, ROH, Covent Garden, May 2016Posted on 5 May 2016
Liam Scarlett’s interest in German myth and murderous intrigue, already apparent in his ballets Hansel and Gretel and Sweet Violets, now finds its full flowering in Mary Shelley’s 1818 story of Victor Frankenstein. This meditation on loss, the yearning for love, and fear of the outsider shows the folly of taking on oneself the gods’ power to create life.
Inspired by the shock of his mother’s death shortly before he leaves home for university, the young Frankenstein throws himself into the study of science, and though his quest succeeds the new Creation repulses him. As a sentient being it yearns for human contact and when Victor returns home to marry his beloved Elizabeth, the Creature follows, envious of the happiness in Victor’s family. The stage is now set for disaster, multiple deaths, and the unbearable loneliness of the Creature, who loses his creator and in this telling of the story is adrift in the flames of the Frankenstein manor.
To encapsulate this multi-faceted tale in a single evening of ballet while retaining the essential details of the original is a huge achievement by Scarlett, aided by past collaborators: a musical score by Lowell Lieberman, plus excellent designs by John Macfarlane beautifully lit by David Finn. Some aspects of Mary Shelley’s story have been cut, yet plenty remains, including the nasty death by hanging of the blameless Justine, whose conviction at the end of Act II is part of the Creature’s revenge against rejection. Victor understands this, and his feelings of fear in Act III are cleverly expressed in the choreography of the ballroom scene to music recalling Prokofiev’s Cinderella.
Fine ensemble dancing and expressive pas-de-deux help carry the story, and in Act I the family’s adoption of Elizabeth and the off-stage death of the mother in childbirth are tastefully portrayed. Scarlett could teach some opera directors a thing or two here.
Superb portrayals of Victor and Elizabeth by Federico Bonelli and Laura Morera, and a glowingly sympathetic account of Victor’s friend Clerval by Alexander Campbell. Bennet Gartside showed a fine mix of authority and anxiety as the father, and Thomas Whitehead produced a gloriously authoritarian vignette as the German Anatomy Professor in Act II, followed by the theatrical tour de force of Victor’s subsequent creation of life in the corpse they were studying. As the Creature himself, Steven McRae produced a peerless performance that fully engaged our sympathy, and the young Guillem Cabrera Espinach gave a wonderful account of his first victim, Victor’s younger brother.
As a unified creation of choreography, music and stage design this brings Mary Shelley’s work to life, but though the music, well conducted by Koen Kessels, has emotive moments and creates an atmosphere that serves the story well it seemed to lack emotional punch. Yet this dark ballet is doubtless assured a place in the Company’s repertoire and I love the timing of its premiere in the week following Walpurgis Night.
Performances with two main casts continue until May 27, with a live cinema screening on May 18 — for details click here.