When SISATA was formed in 2012 they originally focused on the re-telling of Shakespearean plays, but they've always followed the central aim of bringing 'classic stories to life'. Their three-month tour of Frankenstein is, they state, their 'most experimental classic adaptation to date'. This is no exaggeration. Frankenstein, a collaboration between SISATA and the BAFTA award-winning playwright, John Foster, is certainly a challenging experiment for the actors on stage, but equally so for the audience. That's not to say that some aspects of this production should not be commended.
Certainly a challenging experiment for the actors on stage, but equally so for the audience.
Firstly, a stunning setting. This was my first experience of the Brighton Open Air Theatre (commonly known as BOAT) and I was captivated by its simple, organic environment that provided the perfect backdrop to a play that explores the concept of creation. Secondly, SISATA’s Frankenstein script is an innovative take on Shelley’s original that both challenges its audience and strikes a chord, at least initially, with its observations on the dire state of the world. Additionally, there is some talented and energetic acting; Seth Tonkin (Xero) and particularly Emily Rowan (Angel) give convincing performances with a variety of tone and emotion. All actors creatively use sparse props; a sheet, for example, becomes both a convincing foetus and a swaddled babe in arms. Both the script and direction clearly allow the performers to use the whole stage and seating area, bringing a physical dynamism to their presentation.
However...the gentle light of a pleasant, summer’s eve that encased this inviting wood and grass amphitheatre belied the darkness of the production’s content. Frankenstein is clearly not light-hearted material, granted, but with the original perhaps we can console ourselves that it happened long ago. The contemporary narrative of SISATA’s production was heavy dark matter of a serious and black hole-like quality and, if the audience wasn’t careful, I felt we were all in danger of being sucked up into the eternal depths of despair.
This depressing tone was set from the offset by the tortured chief scientist of project 'we need to create humans to save our dying earth' aka Frankie (Neelam Parmar) ranting and bemoaning the state of the world, her previous miscarriages and earlier failed Angel prototypes. She was joined by fellow scientists, Eris (Frank Leon), a scientific realist and life cynic (who was, purposely or not, modelled on Doc from Back to the Future), and Xero who, with a school-boy charm, adopted the enthusiastic and glass half-full approach (of sorts). Angel (Emily Rowan) was the eventual success of their genetic dabblings, but the scientists’ excitement and wonder at their creation soon descends into horror and a sense of impending disaster builds. This narrative is woven with many questions and reflections concerning their creation, Angel, the consequences of this experiment, as well as explorations of their own relationships, sexuality and gender. This seemed a little stilted and almost a narrative add-on to fit in with the current zeitgeist.
Additionally, the direction of this production seems to have focused on the importance of an artistic style of delivery rather than a clear one. This resulted in many questions being raised in the audience too, and at times I was left to wonder exactly what this play was about. Nature vs nurture? Stifling societal homogeny vs liberation of self-expression? Survival at all costs vs at what cost? Or finally, and perhaps most depressingly, the fact that the creation of our own little Janes and Johns, and in this case Angel, is just pointless as we mess it up every time anyway?
The tone of this play is just too dark, monotonous and unrelenting. For me, this production could have been improved by a script that offered a variety of tone and pace. I would have welcomed crafted, rather than vague, incidental humour to have lightened the mood at times. Even in Frankenstein? Why not? This would have enabled viewers to chew, and then digest, the heavy social commentary before we were offered the next big mouthful. Secondly, the timing of some of the actors was a little off and, sadly, I didn’t feel any authenticity between the relationships of Eris and Xero and Eris and Frankie. However, Rowan, as Angel, was a watchable talent. She was as convincing as a gangly, garbling newborn as she was as an automated, ice-cold murderer. Tonkin too was compelling. His portrayal of Xero was believable, and he commanded a notable presence on stage. Unfortunately, I felt Parmar’s delivery could have been more varied, though undoubtedly a sense of her torment was conveyed. Leon, as the unloved luckless Eris, had a comic likeability that could have been explored further and, as previously stated, would have offered a welcome relief from two hours (save a 15 minute interval) of non-stop intensity.
I wish I had liked this production more. It was creative, thought-provoking and unsettling. But it was too intense with a confusing narrative, and, at times, toneless delivery and a depressing overriding theme. In today's world, we have enough cynicism - to survive I think we all need a little more hope.