Rough-Hewn’s entirely devised production of Frankenstein is a curious evening of entertainment. The company style themselves as aiming to ‘create provocative and invigorating theatre’; every production of theirs that I have seen has fitted this bill, and Frankenstein is no exception to the rule. The first half, shown from Frankenstein’s perspective, showed flashes of genuine brilliance, managing to inject dark humour into the original tale. The dialogue was sharp, the characterisation observant, the setting modernised. Unfortunately, however, the second half, shown from the Monster’s point of view, did not live up to the expectations of the first. Starting promisingly, it slowly deteriorated into onstage violence that lost the tension and shrewd humour that characterised the previous act.
The story bore a contemporary setting well, stripped of its Gothic archetypes. Director Harley Viveash and the rest of the cast deserve considerable recognition for collectively devising such a streamlined script, particularly for scenes such as that between Frankenstein and Henry in the pub, and Frankenstein taking the Monster out for dinner. Howard Coase and Nick Finerty as Frankenstein and the Monster were consistently superb throughout, with Nick Dolphin’s performances in particular standing out from amongst the strong supporting cast. However the biting humour that made the first half so enjoyable was noticeably absent from the majority of the second, and the final scene between Elizabeth and the Monster lapsed into moments of pure dramatic stereotyping.
After the strong close of the first act, leaving me wondering where the play could possibly go from there, the decision to set the second half from the Monster’s perspective initially seemed inspired. The backing ensemble came into its own, throwing the Monster into complete isolation through his lack of language and subsequent understanding. Although the ensemble had been used to good effect in the first half, throwing into relief Frankenstein’s steady detachment from a superficial and indifferent society, it was most disturbing when seen through the Monster’s eyes. The tipping point of the second act seemed to be at William’s murder. From after this scene, astute characterisation was overtaken by viscerally depicted strangulations, with a detour through the Monster’s impossible fantasy about happy co-existence with another of Frankenstein’s creations. Although onstage violence has served Rough-Hewn well before (such as in last season’s Foxfinder), this production could perhaps have benefitted from a more suggestive approach.
Perhaps the most unsettling literature that engages with the ‘monster’ or otherwise socially outcast character type has the ability to make the reader empathise with the outcast in question. By the end of Frankenstein, despite the various murders that the monster has committed, Shelley’s multiple narratives paint a portrait of a wretched character driven to extreme actions by societal injustice. By the end of the first act, this had been admirably achieved; although Elizabeth’s death was by this point inevitable, the series of events that led to this point still bore the mark of tragedy, rather than the acts of a heartless murderer. By the close of the second act, however, the reverse was true. Whilst the majority of the adaptation lost nothing from alterations to the original (for example cutting out minor characters and events such as the death of William’s nanny, Justine), this seemed to be an aspect where the novel is both more nuanced and provocative.
Rough-Hewn repeatedly produce some of the best student drama in Oxford, and their shows always push boundaries and expectations. While this was not their most consistently strong production, the initial energy and momentum generated by the collaborative creative process of devised theatre has the potential to become some terrifically exciting drama. I would recommend seeing Frankenstein for the strength of the first half which produced thoroughly enjoyable, five-star theatre; I hope that their next devised play lives up to the promise of the opening scenes.