Not many critics go back as far as the Financial Times's Clement Crisp, so his saying that The Royal Ballet's new Frankenstein is,
…a balletic evening as bizarre as any I have known at Covent Garden since the theatre reopened in 1946,
is quite a statement!
Most critics were slightly confused by the operation, leaving 30-year-old Liam Scarlett to thrash out a three act ballet. Scarlett must be confused too, as while most said that his storytelling was ill-judged and over-long, they agreed that “Liam Scarlett is a talented and eager dance-maker” (The Sunday Times) and that he is a “choreographer to be reckoned with” (The Observer) and that his choreography is “witty, visceral” (The Guardian) and “subtle” (The Stage). As always, there are fifty shades of opinion, with The Telegraph saying,
Frankenstein is the least enjoyable full-evening work I have ever seen the Royal Ballet perform… the latest and worst of a string of new mediocrities to have appeared on the (heavily subsidised) Covent Garden stage in recent years.
While London Dance reported,
Scarlett is pursuing his own genre of dramatic ballet with a psychological edge and – in so doing – he is adding to a unique heritage at the Royal Ballet. This is a remarkable achievement for Scarlett's first full-length ballet and I feel sure that it is a “keeper”.
Design and Music
The costume, set and lighting design were given a thumbs up all round:
John Macfarlane's panelled set is magnificent, complete with outlandish electrical devices as well as anatomical studies and skeletons,
said Jann Parry for Dance Tabs. The Independent‘s Zoë Anderson was in agreement,
John Macfarlane's designs are spectacular, blending precise naturalistic detail with stylised smears of colour.
And Neil Norman for The Stage thought,
The reanimation scene is worth the price of admission with MacFarlane's set snapping, crackling and popping as strange steampunk galvanic devices descend from above and bubble green liquid at the side.
Debra Craine's review for The Times said,
Macfarlane's gorgeous costumes, evoking late 18th-century fashions, are lit in a painterly way by David Finn and we have a new score from the American composer Lowell Liebermann that's saturated with atmosphere and an undercurrent of unease even in its more romantic moments.
While on the music, Graham Watts for London Dance wrote that,
Praise is also due to Scarlett for not going down the over-trodden route of using electronic music. Here is a proper, sweeping, rich orchestral score that is symphonic in its range of movements, melodies and motifs… a flowing score that manages to be both descriptive and illustrative of character and narrative purpose in a filmic way but also music that could (and should) have a life of its own in the concert hall.
Though others found the score bland at times,
Lowell Liebermann's score which is in danger of being mistaken for Mantovani on a good day up till now, kicks in properly and shifts the tone into predictive doom. The swooning strings and sudden juxtapositions with howling brass keep the story on its toes even when it threatens to get a bit floppy. (The Stage)
And Luke Jennings in The Observer wrote that Liebermann's score,
…washes unmemorably over the action.
Scarlett's team gets a seal of approval, as largely does Scarlett the choreographer. It is Scarlett the dramaturge that causes almost universal puzzlement.
Structure and form
As David Dougill pointed out in The Sunday Times,
Tackling narrative works calls for other qualities: a sense of structure and of what the medium can bear; and, when the source of the narrative is a literary work, what to focus on and what to leave out.
The Financial Times complained that,
It explores, with nagging attention to detail, the story of Frankenstein's creation of life and the deranged nature of his Creature, his tedious family and friends, his love for Elizabeth, and a plethora of incidents rather too reminiscent of other balletic scenes — from Nutcracker to Mayerling — in decently academic and earnestly prolix manner, until the Creature exacts his revenge and kills all and sundry.
The Times agreed,
Scarlett's meticulous approach, however, means that the narrative is often sluggish… Perhaps if Scarlett had spent less time on the margins of his story he could have spent more time developing his Creature.
A thought echoed by The Observer,
We're overwhelmed with exposition, family backstory and inconsequential set pieces which lock the work solid, so that it's almost an hour, or feels like it, before Victor even goes to university.
The New York Times too felt that Scarlett's fiddly attention to detail made him lose sight of the important aspects of the story:
The deeper themes of the novel — parental rejection, death, guilt, the evil within — are mostly lost in a tedious exposition of family backstory that takes up much of the 50-minute first act.
What's On in London, said that this is one of Scarlett's weaknesses,
In previous narrative ballets, the choreographer has shown flair and a taste for grand guignol effects but he has also, fatally, revealed an inability to distinguish the significant fact from the insignificant detail.
The Guardian said,
Scarlett has fallen into the trap of being over-literal. Most of his long first act is wasted on swathes of very ordinary dance exposition… Amid the merry servants and domestic bustle, Scarlett fails to bring into focus the only two characters who matter, Victor and Elizabeth. Although beautifully danced by Federico Bonelli and Laura Morera, their choreography remains too generic – reminiscent of too many other lovers in the repertoire.
The Independent too noted the nods toward Ashton and MacMillan ballets – conscious or not:
Tone and vocabulary suggest Manon with anatomy theatre scenes and a Cinderella last act.
As Mark Monahan wrote for The Telegraph,
This expensive-looking new work feels largely (de)composed of body-parts from other, infinitely superior British ballets.
Being that Scarlett is just 30-years old, many assumed that his approach to staging this classic of English literature would be more daring:
Scarlett has opted for a very conventional staging — some might even say old-fashioned — that eschews the traditional horror-show clichés of old. (The Times)
Frankenstein‘s downfall is that if feels so damn conventional; there's not a flicker of life or character in the troops of servants, whores and party guests who cross the stage looking like refugees from some other ballet. (The Arts Desk)
The limp traditionalism of this Frankenstein… is dispiriting. Is this how we tell stories in ballet in the 21st century? (The New York Times)
But maybe some of the problem was having a basically intimate story blown up to something much grander; what to do with the large corps de ballet? No Verona crowd-scenes here.
The vital decision any choreographer has to make when creating a three-act ballet for a major company is whether the chosen subject warrants using a large-scale corps de ballet. If the story is an intimate one, all those surplus, salaried dancers are going to look like padding… Scarlett keeps the corps busy in well-crafted ensemble numbers, but they hardly advance the plot,
says Jann Parry.
So add in a brothel scene – “that ballet cliché, a bunch of cheerful whores” says Parry – which is,
An inexplicable diversion… with a lot of whores waltzing around to no particular purpose. (What's On in London).
As Roslyn Sulcas says,
Just once, oh league of choreographers, could a ballet prostitute have sleek hair and look bored on the job?
Then there is the household staff, maids and footmen, “waltzing around to no particular purpose”, and a third-act wedding party, “with strong echoes of Ashton's La Valse”, and even a generally positive Neil Norman had to admit that,
The last act is a bit of a mess as the stage resembles a kitsch Hollywood version of Strictly Come Dancing complete with spangled dresses.
Debra Craine, however, wrote,
Still, the high points of the drama are either terrific fun, such as the Creature's birth in an anatomy theatre, with the snap and crackle of a sinister mechanical contraption lighting up the Opera House stage, or emotionally affecting, such as the terrible murder of William, Victor's younger brother, or downright Dexter, such as the gleeful climactic killing spree. Throughout, Scarlett's choreography is classically adept and occasionally inspired.
The leading roles are danced with great commitment and the supporting ones are well fleshed out. – Jann Parry
Bonelli dances superbly, and is never less than an elegant presence. – Luke Jennings
Steven McRae's performance is masterly. – Judith Mackrell
McRae, in his bloody, sewn-up bodystocking, is mesmerising. – David Dougill
McRae's portrayal is brilliant; his dancing is eloquent in its anguish, and we sense every beat of his lonely, vengeful heart. – Luke Jennings
Of the lead performers, only rising star Alexander Campbell appears, by some titanic effort of will, to have forgotten just how awful this piece is, and he brings a credible, spring-loaded warmth to Frankenstein's doomed friend, Henry Clerval. – Mark Monahan
Elizabeth, who started as a rejected orphan, is warm and loving in Morera's tender portrayal – says Jann Parry – but the story isn't about her.
And there's the rub!
The relationship between Frankenstein and his Creature is the crux and heart of the story, yet much business is being done elsewhere leaving bemused critics and, presumably, audience members, flicking through the programme notes to discover who the other characters populating the stage are.
Lyndsey Winship for the Evening Standard writes,
But what of the Creature? Born from a riot of sparks and smoke, he promptly flees — the first missed opportunity to connect and sympathise with the wretched monster longing for love and turned brutal by rejection. And when he changes from needy to murderous, we just see a switch flipped, rather than an act of fear turned into tragedy.
Why is Victor so horrified by what he has done? Why does he feel guilty?… The Creature's innate capacity for love is never explored. He turns up craving acceptance and is savage when rejected; it's hard to feel empathy towards him or his creator.
Sarah Crompton agrees,
Scarlett never shows us the depth of the Creature's rejection; until the very close, he shies away from a psychologically revealing duet between master and monster, preferring to concentrate instead on Frankenstein's love for the orphan Elizabeth. This unbalances the ballet, creating a vacuum at its heart.
As Parry says,
Scarlett has given birth to his own creation without giving it a beating heart.
Most of the many critics who turned up for this important Royal Ballet appointment, take it out on the management.
Given Scarlett's repeated misfires with shorter narratives (Sweet Violets, Hansel and Gretel, The Age of Anxiety), it is beyond comprehension that Royal Ballet director Kevin O'Hare then decided to entrust him with the Herculean challenge of a three-acter.
That the Royal Ballet has allowed Scarlett to get in so far over his head is reprehensible. He is unquestionably a great talent, but he is equally clearly not ready for a commission on this scale. Why, in the wake of Sweet Violets, Raven Girl, The Age of Anxiety, Carmen and Strapless – all expensive failures – does the company not insist that its narrative choreographers are guided by experienced directors? Britain is home to some of the most brilliant theatrical minds in the world. Is the Royal too proud to ask for help?
So can it be saved?
According to Norman,
There is still plenty to feast your eyes on and there is nothing here that some bolt tightening wouldn't cure.
But Crisp says,
I think this creation too innocent to be let out alone at night.
Mackrell says it's worth trying:
There's a very powerful work at the heart of this ballet, yet Scarlett needs to cut and cut again to set it free. And given the amount of money that was spent on the production, the Royal should insist that he does.
Dougill wants to give the work another chance:
This Frankenstein has many good points, but it needs considerable rethinking, a sharper focus on the main story and a lot of scissor work.
Parry too is in favour of getting out the scissors:
Edited to two acts, with more about the Creature and less about the Frankenstein family, it might just work, thanks to its splendid designs.
If the spend is to be recuperated and the ballet kept for the repertory, there needs to be some rigorous cutting (it should be a two-acter, tops) and a much tighter focus on the strange symbiotic relationship of creator and creation. Otherwise, I'm afraid it will go the way of its ill-fated title character and his unloved Creature.
But a positive Zoë Anderson ends by saying,
As a whole, Frankenstein shows impressive confidence. Scarlett is assured in his use of a large cast, and there are beautifully shaped dances. The last act switches from naturalistic storytelling to abstraction, a ballroom scene played out against a stylised, fiery landscape. It just needs to make more of the novel's central theme.
The Sunday Times
The Arts Desk
What's On Stage
The New York Times
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.