Frankenstein, Cascade Dance Theatre at Chapter Arts Cardiff

2018 has been quite the Franken-tastic year. With conferences a-go-go and a veritable funfair of Frankenreads events, the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s game-changing masterpiece has been quite fully, and rightfully, celebrated en masse. Having studied the book in-depth for thesis-y reasons over the past four years, I’ve consumed the story in myriad mediums from the filmic, to the televisual, to the orchestral, including a gender-swapped web series and that icky Sean Bean show loosely ‘inspired by’ Victor’s dodgy dealings with the (un)dead.

So I was thrilled at the prospect of Cascade Dance Theatre* translating the tale in their latest much-lauded production. I’d seen the Royal Opera House’s lavish stab at a Franken-centric ballet on TV a couple of years ago – but found their faithfulness to the source material resulted in a less powerful whole that, while visually spectacular, was ultimately undermined by the rushed, soap opera-esque ending. How, then, would Cascade fare with six performers, two musicians, and a single simple set?

Beautifully, as it turns out. Artistic Director Phil Williams (winner of Wales’ Best Male Dance Artist Award at the Wales Theatre Awards 2017) has carefully assembled an excellent adaptation that is small in scale but large in style and ambition, fulfilling the heart of Shelley’s tale in creative new ways. The ensemble is excellent across the board, with Stuart Waters as a suitably haughty, believably tormented Victor, and Jordi Calpe Serrats in an endlessly vibrant and deeply sympathetic turn as the creature. Their connection is compellingly ambiguous: there is no directly analogous relationship to theirs, meaning that Victor is in turns the creature’s God, father, masculine ideal, romantic interest and romantic rival. Their bond could have set a positive precedent for humanity; but their mutual violence to one another and people close to them renders them variously perpetrator and victim to the other until their battle concludes in bloodily Biblical fashion.

Although Frankenstein was written by a woman, and especially one with such a famous feminist mother, there is a curious dearth of female characters in the text that are afforded the same active roles and complexity as their male counterparts, being mostly passive recipients of male violence. It’s a lovely reversal, then, that the women of Cascade’s Frankenstein are the absolute highlight of an already-stellar production. Caldonia Walton shines particularly brightly as Elizabeth Lavenza, Victor’s far-superior fiancée; Walton imbues kindness, strength and a genuine warmth of character to what is often a thankless role, and lights up the stage whenever she graces it. And the tremendous trio of Anna Cabré-Verdiell, Desi Bonato and Luca Dora Bakos steal the show entirely – case in point…

…We open on a truly haunting image: the creature, encased in chrysalis-like bindings, being meticulously inspected by a trio of women whose white strobes cast the only light in a sea of darkness. At first, they seem like explorers; archaeologists hungrily inspecting the excavated remains of an ancient burial site. But as the drama unfolds, the trio’s more otherworldly nature is revealed; they seem at times to be angelic guardians, at others mischevious sprites, even mythological beings like the Graeae, the three sisters of Fate from Greek mythology, and their spiritual descendants in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Bonato, Bakos and Cabré-Verdiell (who doubles as the female creature) not only dance superbly, but inhabit multiple roles with ease and panache, and I felt at times that they acted as Mary Shelley’s muses, helping her to tell her story two hundred years later on that appropriately dreary night of November 2018.

The sumptuous performances are complemented and enhanced by the rest of the production’s creative endeavours, not least Hristo Takov’s atmospheric lighting, and Paul Shriek’s spectacular set and wardrobe design. The set is evocatively uneven, making the most out of jagged inclines and the morgue-like slab on which the creature is brought to life, and on which Victor ends as his creature started; the costumes are artfully-tattered and ethereally expressive with shades of Vivienne Westwood. All of which is tied up in a gorgeously Gothic bow by Jak Poore and Ben Parsons’ eerily emotive score, composed and performed live by the two on stage like Romanticism’s answer to Daft Punk.

There are scenes in this production so haunting and beautiful that I will never forget them, and are well worth the price of admission alone – you won’t believe how they perform the sending of a letter, but it’s an unexpected delight. The programme promised a more creature-centric narrative, and they definitely delivered – one scene follows his flight from a macabrely-masked mob who taunt and beat him. You totally feel the creature’s pain and the endless cycle of fear, frustration and rejection from which there seems to be no way out. And I’m not sure Mary Shelley would have envisioned her creature bumping & grinding at an Eyes Wide Shut-inspired rave, but Cascade makes it work (plus I think the rebellious Mary would have approved): a masked group writhe and worship at the monolithic neon altar of SHELLEY’S BAR, escalating in impressively incendiary fashion. And the dance between the two creatures, one living and one lifeless, was utterly breath-taking: Serrats and Cabré-Verdiell transform what could have been a deeply awkward encounter into the show’s emotional apex.

Not everything lands; having affectingly conveyed the creature’s birth, rejection, and loneliness without the need for words, it was jarring for Victor to suddenly start monologuing the ‘dreary night of November’ speech when we had literally just seen it happen before our eyes. The creative team should have had more faith in its superbly talented cast to convey the story through performance alone. If there had to be words at all, it would have been infinitely more effective if they were more sparingly used – though the creature’s first word being ‘father’ was an effective moment, Victor’s sporadic speechifying was not. And though Elizabeth’s letters were nicely presented, I still find the exposition a little clunky in an otherwise elegant retelling.

It was on a dreary night of November that the creature beheld the accomplishment of his toils; standing before the same slab on which he was birthed, on which now rests the bodies of his victims. He wraps them in the bindings that once imprisoned him, and retreats across the stage into darkness once more, all the while unfurling that umbilical cord-like tether, his last tie to humanity. It’s a fittingly melancholic end to a stunning production that I cannot recommend highly enough. Whether you’re a Frankenstein fanatic like myself, or if you have the most passing familiarity with the text, you’re sure to find Cascade’s adaptation wonderfully rewarding. It’s been touring around Wales since 1st November, but you should definitely catch one of the last two performances of this remarkable show either tonight or tomorrow (30th Nov/ 1st Dec) at Chapter Arts: https://www.chapter.org/frankenstein, http://www.cascadedancetheatre.co.uk/

 

*In co-production with Taliesin Arts Centre; supported by the Arts Council of Wales, Welsh Government and the National Lottery, with additional support from Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Ty Cerdd and Creu Cymru.

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