Sunday, April 8, 2018

Dr Frankenstein - Canberra Repertory

Review by John Lombard

The title “Dr Frankenstein” is deliberate and ironic: this is a Frankenstein that cannot become a doctor, because this Frankenstein is a woman.

Playwright Selma Dimitrijevic’s interpretation of the Frankenstein story flips the scientist’s gender. Victoria Frankenstein (Jenna Roberts) must not only conquer death, she must fend off the claims of English society on a woman. This Frankenstein is charged not just with abandoning new life, but with neglecting the old.

While Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley was a pioneering novelist and the daughter of a famous advocate of women’s rights, the female characters in her novel are strikingly dreary. Dimitrijevic’s female Frankenstein promises to fuse creator and creation, stitching the social pressures Shelley would have faced to the Frankenstein myth.

Contrary to expectations, the play argues that Frankenstein’s gender does not really matter. Her father is upset with her career choice, but pays for her study anyway. And where most women of the era were denied even basic privacy, Victoria is able to sequester in the laboratory for months.

Victoria does have one nightmare about the live burial of the “rest cure”, but the play is mostly concerned with getting any gender problems out of the way so that it can tell the Frankenstein story.

Frankenstein’s dress is even given some impressive deep pockets - a necessity for any serious mad scientist.

Jenna Roberts plays Victoria Frankenstein as intense and aloof, warm to the dead but cold to the living. Victoria has sudden bursts of tremendous warmth, but a sociopathic detachment that often makes her feel like more of a monster than her Creature.

Michael Sparks is extremely impressive as the Creature, helped by some effective makeup that gives his skin a putrid tinge. Sparks limps pitifully, but commands our attention with a powerful voice and convincingly laboured movements.

The play departs from Shelley’s novel by having Frankenstein tend to the awakening Creature. Where Victor Frankenstein immediately fled in horror, Victoria stays: teaching the monster some basic words, showing it how to move its arms, even laughing with it.

Later, when the Creature confronts its creator, it cites these actions as Victoria’s greatest crimes: the Creature’s suffering was keener for this brief moment of love.

Saban Lloyd Berrell is the perfect Victorian father, and Georgina Horsburgh as Elizabeth is at home in the gothic. Cole Hilder as Victoria’s childhood friend is brotherly, but Victoria seems above any career limitation such as romance.

In general, the production focused on establishing Victoria's independence from ordinary human bonds, and in doing so lost the opportunity of showing what she might be sacrificing in her ruthless quest.

Director Jordan Best creates an icy and gothic atmosphere, but the pace is often too ponderous and slow. Excellent original music by Matt Webster (set to Percy Shelley poems) provided a necessary emotional intensity, and choir accompaniment by the cast created a creepy atmosphere.

“Dr Frankenstein” makes a powerful change to the Frankenstein myth by casting a woman as the creator of life: it provocatively shows a maternal and caring quality in Victoria absent in the self-obsessed Victor.  But this provocation is neglected: this adaptation is too wary of destabilising the myth it is attempting to resurrect.  If Frankenstein can be female, then why not also the Creature?

But if the retelling is surprisingly conservative, it is an effective theatrical adaptation, ruthlessly cutting elements such as the North Pole bookends for a lean and pure Frankenstein that still has some surprises. The action may creep too slowly, but “Dr Frankenstein” is a worthy heir to Shelley’s own patchwork creation, and Jenna Roberts true to the spirt of the modern Prometheus.