Culture,  Theatre

The Royal Ballet’s Frankenstein: A Sinister Look At The Monster Within

Hi, my name is Vanessa, and I have never read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Whew, that felt good to admit! Because of this, my review of the recent Royal Ballet adaptation won’t include a deep critical analysis of the book, but will mainly explore the production as a standalone performance, with some references to the novel’s themes.

On a mild March evening  in the Royal Opera House Main Theatre, I attended my first ballet –  shout out to the Young ROH scheme and others like it, which offers significantly reduced tickets to students and young adults. My friend secured two Level 1 seats for just £10 each through the last minute standby system!

Firstly, the ROH is beautiful – parts of the interior are like a museum, with plaques, pictures and set pieces from past performances, so it’s worth wandering around during the intervals.  Also, I don’t remember the last time I had such good seats for a show – usually when I go to the theatre I’m right at the top and near the back, but this time we barely had to climb a flight of stairs – we didn’t even break a sweat! Is that what ‘making it’ feels like, but all the time?

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Having never been to the ballet before, I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to follow a storyline with no spoken or sung dialogue. I’d looked up the book on Sparknotes, so that I’d at least know the overall gist, but had no idea what to expect. As it turns out, this was needless because several key parts of the story were condensed and reinterpreted. It admittedly took some time to get into the show; the first act moved the slowest, following a young and vital Victor Frankenstein in his idyllic, affluent life with his family and lover Elizabeth. Pace notably increases when his mother dies, significantly in the only non-violent death of the show. The audience can credit Frankenstein’s fixation with death to this loss. The discord of grief disrupts the harmony of his life, triggering his gradual descent into the man who created a monster. In the climax of the first act, it’s captivating to watch the young student agonising over his decision to enliven the corpse. The set design shines most in these laboratory scenes – it’s harsh and hyper-industrial, with literal sparks flying.

There were 2 intermissions for the audience to enjoy food and drinks (or free tap water – no £20 glass of champers for us yet, people) in the lovely Paul Hamlyn Hall. Where the first act was slightly laboured, the next two are full of drama and suspense as the monster causes havoc in Frankenstein’s perfect world, relentlessly killing off his loved ones. The show succeeded at being genuinely scary; the monster’s movements are stealth in the right parts. The audience jumps at the right moments, and there was excellent use of shadow work to visualise his looming presence even when not directly on stage, creating palpable dread.

As with the book, this show takes us on a journey of interesting themes. The first is that of control. Victor Frankenstein, devastated by loss, seeks to use science to conquer death, which catalysed the show’s chain of events. There is also blame – who is ultimately responsible for the monster’s murderous deviance? We see a deep longing for humanity and companionship in the way that he at times mimics the movements of humans, and in many ways he has been robbed by Frankenstein, both of the peace of death and of true connection with the living, due to his grotesque appearance.

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Importantly, there is the arc of regret. Frankenstein immediately regrets bringing the monster to life, an emotion which ultimately consumes him. Their final confrontation in the closing act is powerful; as they wrestle for a gun, their movements mirror one another, and the connection between creator and creation is clear. His efforts to separate himself were futile, and Frankenstein seems to finally come to terms with his responsibility for the fatal turns his life has taken. Though he wins the tussle for the gun, with the monster at his mercy he shoots himself, unable to cope with his reality. At the end of the show, after mourning his creator, Frankenstein’s monster gazes in horror at the hellscape before him. He descends into the unknown, leaving the audience unsure over who created it.

Overall, I loved my first night at the ballet – it was weird, it was sinister, and really engaging. I’d like to watch more mediums that I’m not used to, particularly dance performances. This show taught me that ballet isn’t always pretty, it can be edgy and dynamic.

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