TILTED Wig’s Frankenstein is an electrifying reimagining of Mary Shelley’s Gothic 19th century horror story, now set in 1943, on tour at York Theatre Royal from Tuesday for the Halloween season.
While Europe tears itself apart, two women hide from their past at what feels like the very end of the world. One of them has a terrifying story to tell.
Adapted and directed by Sean Aydon, this new thriller explores the very fabric of what makes us human and the ultimate cost of chasing “perfection”, with a cast led by Eleanor McLoughlin as Doctor Victoria Frankenstein, alongside Basienka Blake as Captain/Richter, Cameron Robertson as The Creature, Dale Mathurin as Henry, Lula Marsh as Elizabeth and Annette Hannah as Francine.
“When I first approached the script, I wanted to make it feel more contemporary, to relate more to the ethical questions of today and to make it feel more real,” says Séan. “But setting it in 2023 felt too clean and clinical. There is something far less scary about lasers and steel in comparison to rusted operating equipment.”
Why pick the Second World War? “There is no historical context that we have a better shared understanding than that of World War II. We are all aware of the horrors of the time, and by setting our play amongst them it raises the stakes immeasurably; the Doctor’s experiments have the power to change the whole world in a way we can all imagine,” says Séan.
“By exploring it through the prism of that time, a world where eugenics and racial purity were growing in popularity, I’m also hoping that the audience question the ethics of today and the dangerous path that chasing ‘perfection’ leads to.”
Séan’s gender swap of Shelley’s protagonist, transforming Victor to Victoria Frankenstein, influences the play’s dynamics and overall message. “The biggest impact of having a female doctor is the use of the word ‘mother’ and all the connotations that go with it,” he says.
“When the Creature calls her ‘Mother’ it’s a chilling reminder of the responsibility we have when creating life and how distorted the relationship can become.”
Séan approached the original text as a starting point for an entirely new play. Although major plot points remain intact, little dialogue was lifted from the novel, allowing for the exploration of Shelley’s ideas in a fresh context.
“The book itself is not particularly theatrical; it is told in a series of letters. But I wanted to retain that element of it feeling like a ‘ghost story’ told in the past tense,” he says. “I love the idea of two people sitting by a fire, telling a story that grows in the audience’s mind until the tension is almost unbearable. True fear exists in the imagination.”
Doctor Frankenstein’s story is enduringly popular, resulting in interpretations over the years on both stage and screen. Next up, Emma Stone will be a female Frankenstein’s monster in the upcoming film Poor Things, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.
Boris Karloff’s 1931 creature is often lauded as definitive, while the 1957 Hammer horror reworking featuring Christopher Lee spawned six sequels. Less scary, but still impactful, was Mel Brooks’s 1974 parody, Young Frankenstein, starring and co-written by Gene Wilder.
In 1999, Frankenstein’s story received a somewhat different treatment in the direct-to-video Alvin And The Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein. In 2012, Tim Burton’s stop-motion Frankenweenie was voiced by the likes of Winona Ryder, Martin Landau and Martin Short.
At the National Theatre, London, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature in Danny Boyle’s 2011 production, subsequently sharing the Laurence Olivier Award and Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Play.
Séan attributes this endless fascination to several factors: Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel, still captivating audiences as scientific advancements bring its themes closer to reality.
Secondly, its themes are timeless: humanity’s responsibility toward one another is questioned continually, while the rise of AI [artificial intelligence] has thrust the progress of science and technology into the news headlines.
Thirdly, the eternal question of nature versus nurture will always strike a nerve with parents and carers.
Horror stories on stage and screen represent our inherent desire to be scared. Whereas cinema crafts realistic portrayals of horror, theatre taps into the power of the imagination and the present moment in an immersive experience that heightens the tension and fear.
Witness Andy Nyman’s Ghost Stories that terrified Grand Opera House audiences in York in March 2020 or Robert Icke’s psychological horror adaptations.
Now comes Tilted Wig’s reinvention of Frankenstein. “I want people to leave realising they haven’t relaxed any of the muscles in their body for the last hour,” says Séan.
“If you love gripping drama; if you love a good story well told; if you want to be laughing and before you know it find your heart in your mouth; if you want to be left arguing about which character was in the right for the next few days, you should book to see Frankenstein.”
Tilted Wig in Frankenstein, York Theatre Royal, October 24 and 26 to 28, 7.30pm; October 25 and 26, 2pm; October 28, 2.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Not suitable for under 12s.
Did you know?
SEAN Aydon was assistant director on the world premiere of Tom Fletcher’s The Christmasaurus at the Hammersmith Apollo, London, and adapted and directed the national tour of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Did you know too?
TILTED Wig’s Frankenstein features an original score by Eamonn O’Dwyer, who provided the score for Shakespeare Rose Theatre’s Twelfth Night and Henry V in York in 2019.