It’s a testament to the strength of Mary Shelley’s writing that, two hundred years later, her legendary monster continues to captivate audiences. In celebration of the gothic novel’s landmark anniversary, Cascade Dance Company have reinterpreted Frankenstein as a bold and contemporary piece of dance. It’s refreshing to see the classic story getting retold in such a visual way but, intent and approach aside, the production doesn’t quite live up to the prestige of its source material.
The fundamental challenge with adapting Frankenstein is that the horror aspect is at best, a subplot. Shelley’s novel is a damning satire on the human condition; it explores parenthood and the responsibilities that come with it, and it explores what it means to be sentient. Deliberately setting out to downplay those narrative points is fair enough (hello, Boris Karloff) but if you’re trying to really capture those complexities – which Cascade valiantly attempts here – it becomes glaringly obvious when you fall short. Unfortunately, its glaringly obvious here.
You certainly can’t fault the attempt. The least you should expect from a dance company is high-quality dance, and that’s exactly what you get. All six performers give strong performances, and they do a solid job of imbuing as much of their characters’ personalities into the dancing as the choreography will allow. The choreography can allow only so much, though, and Phil Williams is already in an uphill battle when working with an abridged and adapted narrative. At times it feels like the quality of the dance is deliberately modulated to heighten the narrative; but when the narrative itself has been downsized, both end up feeling undercooked.
The highlight of Frankenstein is undoubtedly the use of live music. Jak Poore has produced some exceptional compositions, beautifully fusing gothic and contemporary sounds. Poore and Ben Parsons’ presence on stage gives a much-needed boost to action that slows down at times. Their impact on the production is possible only because the music is live – without the live element, it would have been another layer of detachment. Another positive component of the production is the creativity with which captioning is used. Going against what audiences usually expect from a captioned performance, Paul Shriek designs it in such a way that it becomes both a narrative device, and a homage to the text. That creative use of captioning may seem like a small gesture, but it adds so much to the enjoyment of the piece. The rest of Shriek’s design is solid, if unspectacular, the set deliberately sparse to allow more room for the dancers.
Parts of Frankenstein are very enjoyable and, at its best, what the audience gets is a beautifully performed piece of dance. At its worst, it’s an undercooked adaptation of the novel and, unfortunately, Williams is unable to find a middle ground between the two. What can’t be ignored is the efforts made by the creative team to bring this ambitious project to life, but bringing it to life just isn’t enough. Just ask Victor Frankenstein.