Breathtakingly sublime sets and deft, sensitive choreography reveal the dark extremes of the human psyche in Frankenstein, the Royal Ballet’s latest co-creation with San Francisco Ballet.
More than two centuries after Mary Shelley’s novel of discovery, morality and consequence, the Royal Opera House has turned this classic into part of their annual repertoire. In its third year, Liam Scarlett’s first full length performance is an embodiment of all that is dark in human nature and beyond. A co-creation of the Royal Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, Frankenstein is four hours of dark spectacle in three acts and seven fatalities.
Despite being on the side of conservative (that is, for the standards of classical ballet), the visual setting of the piece does not disappoint on any account. This is unsurprising given the three-man strong team it brings together. John Macfarlane’s costume and design have a noble finish and are, quite literally, immense. The scenery is monumental and dramatic, making the characters appear small, almost inconsequential. This is especially the case in the tavern scene, where revelry and decadence prove petty compared to Victor’s grief-driven and void-filling experiment, which ultimately culminates in the creation of life. David Finn’s lighting is subtle, but vivid. He uses projectors to cast long heavy shadows of the events occurring off-stage. This works well as sometimes the imagination runs wilder than any reality. Even more delicate, yet grimly atmospheric, are Finn Ross’s projections on the closed curtains at the beginning of each act.
The plot is complicated, and Scarlett embraces the darkest nuances of Shelley’s masterpiece, making it as much about empathy as it is about horror. The choreographic style is loose, yet heavy with soft hands and downward-facing gazes fixed on the floor. The dancers felt like puppets on strings; unsuspecting and powerless agents steered into catastrophe by their own unfortunate thirst for power and sanity.
Strictly speaking, Frankenstein is not a show of ballet technique, as much as it is an exploration of the grimmest corners of pain, fear and morality. (An exception are the energetic appearances of Wei Wang, who shows range in technique and style as the creature, and Victor’s closest friend played by James Hay whose jetés were a bright explosion of energy). Despite ballet coming second to plot, dance works as a medium; or rather, the right actions can be intimate yet project enough of these universal sentiments in a way that would be lost in translation if put into speech.
For example, Scarlett uses the leitmotif of falling throughout the piece. In the best of times, the dancers playfully tease with brisk, fluttering gestures like careless children in a summer garden or shimmers of moonlight in a restless ocean. At the other extreme, when their wrenched destiny catches up, the choreography is lifeless. The gesture of collapse is somber and well placed. At its worst, the gravity of the characters’ circumstances translates directly to failure of the flesh and weakness.
The horror in this production of Frankenstein, is a psychological one. Was it fear that made the creature a monster? Did rejection ultimately boil into fatal revenge? Scarlett interweaves empathy and terror by creating a super-natural being that is a mirror of the other characters. It has the self-consumed temper of Victor’s father as he laments his wife; the blind wrath of the household when they all-too-quickly banish the maid to the guillotine; and finally, Victor’s own craving for belonging, as he tells self-consuming lies to hide his own perverse distraction and resulting creation. The true horror is just how human Scarlett’s creature is.
For more information and to book tickets for the Royal Ballet’s production of Frankenstein, click here.