Liam Scarlett’s new full-length ballet, inspired by Mary Shelley’s Gothic Masterpiece
by Anna Mercer
I bought tickets for Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House quite late; I was unsure of the concept when the first advertisements went out. The National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein in 2011 had disappointed me in its overbearing narrative of creature-as-child (something which obviously originates from Shelley’s novel, but which she presents with more subtlety) – and its overwrought embellishments to the plot. Perhaps these changes were introduced in order to balance Victor’s misgivings with the creature’s ultimate malevolence. But I felt that the production did not give the audience enough chance to think for themselves; Frankenstein’s narrative should give the audience the opportunity to come to a personal realisation of the implications of the dichotomy between creator and created. This complexity is why the novel can famously be read through the lens of so many different strands of literary criticism. Even the Miller/Cumberbatch role-switching seemed a little too obvious in this production.
But the set was impressive, and the acting superb. I did not manage to get tickets to see the play at the National Theatre in London, so I maybe the experience was compromised slightly by watching in the cinema instead – though I have not noticed this effect with other productions. But the idea of seeing a live performance is partly why I shelved my reservations about the ROH Frankenstein, and we proceeded to find last-minute tickets.
Here I will point out that I know nothing about ballet. I haven’t been to watch a performance since I was very young. But overall the experience was fantastic. The production itself was mesmerising. I was already excited before the first curtain came up. The curtain showed a skull image that as the three acts played out, slowly turned from a profile position to face the audience, becoming more alive as it did so. As each act started, tendons and muscles appeared to shift across the ‘face’.
The set and costumes are bold, especially the costume of the creature. Yet the creature’s physical appearance is at once startling and also discreet, as his costume allows his presence to be alternately striking and clandestine. Within the same act he moves from creeping, hidden threat, to a confrontational force of anger. I thought that the best group dance was in the final act, during Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding. Here you see the creature mingle with the dancers, almost completely lost in their world (and unnoticed by all on stage except Victor). At the very end of the show, the monster retreats towards a backdrop of red fire, which recalls the work of William Blake and John Martin.
I deliberately avoided reading any reviews before seeing the performance (and before writing the first draft of this blog), but I have heard that those behind the production made a conscious decision to focus on the love story between Victor and Elizabeth. I don’t know if this is true of Scarlett’s motives – but actually I thought the focus was on love in a familial sense. The emotional hook was the closeness of the Frankenstein family. It was a successful decision, I think, to concentrate on Victor and Elizabeth, rather than bring in the de Lacey narrative from the novel. By keeping it simple, the production allowed us to become involved (in just 3 hours) in the closeness of that family. Also, the first act concentrated specifically on Victor’s experience at university (the anatomy theatre set being particularly impressive), which effectively emphasised the creature’s existence as a product of human endeavour and science rather than something more elusive and paranormal.
Henry Clerval’s role is maintained as another double to the eponymous Frankenstein. As with my comments about the NT play above, I think the choice to emphasis Clerval reflects how the ROH Frankenstein shows a concern with the relationships between other characters, beyond just the creature and its creator. The audience are free to generate their own impressions about ‘good’ and ‘evil’ because Henry and Elizabeth’s criticisms of Frankenstein are hidden. The ability to revert to a less didactic production is something more attuned to the genre of ballet, in comparison to a play. However I think the openness for interpretation is why this production is one that academics and avid readers of Shelley’s original book will enjoy. It doesn’t feed you the story but presents you with the horror and spectacle of it, the human and superhuman qualities of its narrative, and the relationship between humanity and nature. I think Mary Shelley would have been justly proud.
Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley’s husband and long-term literary collaborator, wrote of his disdain for didactic art in the Preface to Prometheus Unbound. In this prose piece Percy denounced ‘didactic poetry’ calling it ‘an abhorrence’: he does not purport to present ‘a reasoned system on the theory of human life’. His plan is to present several kinds of vignettes, fragments that can depict a complex social picture. He describes his aim to produce a ‘systematical history of what appear to me to be the genuine elements of human society’. Mary’s novels, concerned so much with socio-political issues, also present a narrative to show something akin to true human experience, sometimes tied up in supernatural or scientific possibility (as in Frankenstein and The Last Man). The implications of the human behaviour she presents are perplexing, and this is why her work remains so important.
Mary Shelley’s journals from her time in Italy (before Percy’s death in 1822) are characteristically brief and non-confessional. However there are instances of her recording their outings to the ballet, for example on 9 October 1819 in Florence:
Arrive at Florence – Read Massinger – S. begins Clarendon – reads Massinger – & Plato’s Republic – Clare has her first singing lesson on Saturday – Go to the opera & see a beautiful Ballet
The entry demonstrates the Shelleys’ busy literary lives, where even after travelling, their first day in a city still demands reading of various classic works, and then a trip to the ballet.
The show they saw was possibly Otello ossia il moro di Venezia, by Salvator Vigano. An earlier outing to see Otello in Milan on 5 April 1818 also led Mary to describe the ballet as ‘beautiful’. An excursion to the ballet was one of the first things the Shelleys undertook on their arrival in Italy in 1818 (Percy Shelley wrote: ‘no sooner had we arrived at Italy than the loveliness of the earth & the serenity of the sky made the greatest difference in my sensations’). Mary wrote to Leigh and Marianne Hunt of their experience on April 6:
[…] the ballet was infinitely magnificent – It was (strange to say) the story of Othello – but it was rather a tragic pantomime than a ballet – There was no dancer like Mamlle Milanie but the whole was in a finer stile [sic] – The corps de ballet is excellent and they throw themselves into groups fit for a sluptor [sculptor] to contemplate. The music of the ballet was very fine and the gestures striking. The dances of many performers which are so ill executed with us are here graceful to the extreme. The theatre is not lighted and the ladies dress with bonnets and pelisses which I think is a great pity – the boxes are dear – but the pit – in which none but very respectable people are admitted is only eighteen pence so that our amusement is very cheap.
Percy Shelley’s comments on the ballet show that he shares her enthusiasm. Both Shelleys refer to the dancer Milanie, who they had seen perform in London. Percy explicitly appreciates the ballet as a way of ‘illustrating the history in question’:
[…] the Ballet, or rather a kind of melodrama or pantomimic dance, was the most splendid spectacle I ever saw. We have no Miss Millani here – in every other respect Milan is unquestionably superior. The manner in which language is translated into gesture, the complete & full effect of the whole as illustrating the history in question, the unaffected self possession of each of the actors, even to the children, made this choral drama more impressive than I should have conceived possible. The story is Othello, & strange to say it left no disagreeable impression.
A ‘melodrama’, and a ‘spectacle’, were certainly words I would apply to Scarlett’s Frankenstein at the Royal Opera House. The commotion and constant heightening of the senses when watching such powerful movement on stage was very memorable. I think it is interesting to think of the Shelleys appreciating this art form themselves, and the way in which ‘language is translated into gesture’.
My work as a researcher on the lives and works of the Shelleys seeks to clarify our perception of their intimate literary relationship in which art and life are intermingled. In the two letters above it is evident that the Shelleys use an almost identical phrase in order to describe an impression of the performance. The form of the letter makes this seem (when read in isolation) an individual reaction.
However, by reading the Shelleys’ writings in conjunction we can understand that their written response emerged from a discussion between them on their expectations for the ballet compared to what they actually saw (not a ‘ballet’ as they thought it would be, but a ‘pantomimic dance’ / ‘tragic pantomime’). My thesis shows that whilst reading the Shelleys’ creative works – especially those written at the same time – such understanding of their origins, inspirations and meaning can also be drawn out, by placing them in the context of a collaborative literary relationship.
Like Mary and Percy Shelley, we had a wonderful evening at the ‘splendid’, ‘beautiful’ ballet. For anyone this would be a treat; but for someone who is in the midst of solitary research on Frankenstein and the creative collaboration between Mary Shelley and her husband Percy Shelley, it was a powerful reminder of why these authors and their ideas remain so pervasive and important.
 PBS, ‘Preface’ to Prometheus Unbound.
 MWS,The Journals of Mary Shelley 1814-1844 ed. by Paula R. Feldman and Diana Scott-Kilvert (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995) 9 Oct 1819 p. 298.
 MWS, Journals 5 April 1818 p. 203.
 PBS, The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley (2 Vols.) ed. by Frederick L. Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964) Vol II p. 3.
 MWS, The Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (3 Vols.) ed. by Betty T. Bennett (London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980) Vol I p. 64.
 PBS, Letters Vol II p. 4.