Having made ballets about Jack the Ripper (Sweet Violets) and a cannibal witch (Hansel and Gretel), Liam Scarlett moved on to Frankenstein, that titan of gothic horror, for his first full-length ballet, in 2016. These early works have proven his credentials for bold, innovative dance theatre and extended the darker, expressionist aspect of The Royal Ballet’s repertoire, particularly building upon the legacy of the ballets of Kenneth MacMillan.

Artists of the Royal Ballet in Frankenstein
© ROH, 2019 | Andrej Uspenski

It doesn’t come much darker than this. The body count is eight by the final curtain. In the third act they fall like flies. The only character left standing at the end is the one who was dead at the beginning (Frankenstein’s Creature). There’s a suicide, a hanging and every other conceivable manner of death by suffocation or strangulation. It is most assuredly not a ballet for children or the faint-hearted.

Scarlett’s vision of Frankenstein has nothing in common with the popular imagery of film and TV adaptations, but rolls back to revive the original psychological torment of the “Modern Prometheus” in the stories told on windswept evenings in Lord Byron’s rented villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, which the narrator, Mary Shelley, would later publish – initially, anonymously – in 1818, aged just 20.

Federico Bonelli (Victor Frankenstein) and Laura Morera (Elizabeth Lavenza) in Frankenstein
© ROH, 2016 | Bill Cooper
It is essentially a tale of love, loss, obsession and alienation. It is also complex. The Frankenstein household harbours half a dozen diverse love stories, each of which ends in tragedy. And while Scarlett has crafted dance theatre to capture every main strand, he has also included unnecessary padding that could be trimmed. In particular, the tavern scene in Act 1 is of no serviceable purpose to the overall narrative and momentum is lost in other scenes that are unwieldy.

The ballet is well-served by John Macfarlane’s evocative set designs and backcloths, notably his impression of the anatomy theatre at Ingolstadt University, which is presented as if a section through a finely-detailed architectural model. The desolate landscape outside Frankenstein Manor, studied with bare trees, is an apt metaphor to represent the isolated mental torment of both Victor Frankenstein and the lonely, frustrated and unloved creature created by his obsession.

There were some clunky and unfortunate scene transitions in the first act. Set changes should never be this noisy under any circumstances but especially when it intrudes upon narrative linkages between scenes. A wayward backcloth refused to come all the way down, leaving apparently disembodied legs, walking about upstage, which proved an unwelcome distraction to an important scene.

Lowell Liebermann’s symphonic score has a robust filmic quality etched with some memorable melodies for the main dances. These are set within descriptive music, illustrating the scènes d’action that dominate the story as well as distinctive themes to associate with each main character. It is an orchestral work that could stand alone in concert and was sensitively performed under the direction of Barry Wordsworth.

Wei Wang (The Creature) in Frankenstein
© ROH, 2019 | Andrej Uspenski
The leading roles of Victor and Elizabeth were reprised by the dancers on whom the 2016 premiere was created: Federico Bonelli and Laura Morera. They brought tenderness and sensitivity to the romance begun as children (George Ring and Paris Street) in a transition to adulthood that was imaginatively achieved by Scarlett. Their pas de deux were charmingly danced, culminating in a lyrical duet, full of complex lift transitions, sweeping spirals and partnered turns. Bonelli imbued his complex character with an effective range of emotion – romantic, excited, obsessive, guilt-ridden, cold, aloof and frantic (running about in his dark frock coat, Bonelli resembled another of his roles, the troubled Onegin in the final scene of that eponymous ballet). Morera danced elegantly and brought a touching calmness to the devoted, but increasingly troubled, and ultimately doomed, Elizabeth.

Wei Wang, a guest from San Francisco Ballet, gave a striking performance as the child-like Creature, seeking the love of his creator and turning to murderous revenge when shunned. Romany Pajdak was heart-breaking as Justine Moritz, wrongfully accused and executed for the murder of young William Frankenstein (Ptolemy Gidney) and the arresting dramatic capability of the company was well-represented in other support roles: Bennet Gartside as the stern father, Alphonse; Olivia Cowley as the mother, Caroline, the first to die (in childbirth); Thomas Whitehead as the strict professor who fuels Victor’s obsession to reanimate the dead; James Hay as Victor’s idealistic friend, Henry Clerval; and – last but certainly not least – Elizabeth McGorian as the aristocratic housekeeper who disintegrates into a distraught wreck in the ballet’s most harrowing scene when her daughter, the aforementioned Justine, is lynched.

The ballet was not well-received by the critics, back in 2016, and one admires Scarlett’s dogged determination to keep his creative vision unaltered. Despite some drawbacks, it is certainly a bold approach to a difficult subject.