As a fan of Mary Shelley’s novella, I was drawn to see the Royal Ballet’s new Frankenstein. I must say I was sceptical about the transposition of the story into a ballet and, further, into a full-length work. Are three act ballets not a thing of the past? Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein is so entertaining that I must really rethink my suspicions on the format.

Steven McRae as The Creature in <i>Frankenstein</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH 2016
Steven McRae as The Creature in Frankenstein
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2016
Most of us are familiar with the first half of Shelley’s gothic classic, where Victor Frankenstein creates the monster. A fairytale gone horribly wrong, its gory ending is nothing shy of Shakespearean tragedies. Scarlett holds on to the core of the story, though he rids the narrative of its original epistolary format. He also omits the developments in the Orkneys and the North Pole, and has Victor commit suicide, wheras in the novella, the creature kills him. Scarlett also does not render the change in narrator opting instead for a more typical omniscient point of view for the audience; we see the Creature on stage where the other onstage characters do not. Oddly, the acts’ lengths are uneven. As they grow shorter, the deaths multiply adding to the suspense… I was glued to my seat. The timing of the actions was also, at times, uneven, with odd accelerations in places – the birth scene was way too short and there were some instantaneous deaths – in an otherwise even-paced narration.

John Macfarlane’s stage design are – overall – sophisticated. The structures, more operatic than they are balletic, are reminiscent of drawings of neo-classical buildings. The anatomy theatre is a half-cut shell, like perspective drawing of the time.

Steven McRae (the Creature) and Federico Bonelli (Victor) in <i>Frankenstein</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH 2016
Steven McRae (the Creature) and Federico Bonelli (Victor) in Frankenstein
© Bill Cooper | ROH 2016
To these elegant lines, Scarlett adds some steampunk touches such as the machine hovering over the operation table or the skulls projections at the beginning of each act animated by handwritings and sketches from Victor’s notebook. The period costumes see men in tights and long swirling jackets and women in corsets and long dresses. Only Elizabeth, Victor’s fiancée, wears a loose imperial line dress. Amidst this refined elegance, the costumes and décor for the last scene, Victor and Elizabeth’s wedding, are out of sync. The ball guests seem lost in outer space swishing around an ostentatious 70s white staircase that comes out of nowhere on a galactic background. The dresses sparkle weirdly in a yes, festive atmosphere but they shine more like cheap Christmas wrapping paper than stunning fabric. The general effect is slightly tacky and out of sync with the earlier designs.

Choreographically, the sequences where the Creature dances alone disappointed me a little. Steven McRae was wonderful in the role. I would have wanted more distortion and less balletic lines, at least at the beginning. He is indeed a human infant, but a DIY one, who might have some issues. Was he not Victor’s first patchwork? I found his development, which culminated in the ball scene, fitting, though he lingers on a little too long after Victor’s suicide, like those characters in operas who never want to die.

Laura Morera (Elizabeth) and Federico Bonelli (Victor) in <i>Frankenstein</i> © Bill Cooper | ROH, 2016
Laura Morera (Elizabeth) and Federico Bonelli (Victor) in Frankenstein
© Bill Cooper | ROH, 2016
There are also long duets (with stunning lifts) between Victor and Elizabeth passionately danced by Federico Bonelli and Laura Morera and beautiful group sequences in which servants take every excuse for an extra vault or twirl, that fit perfectly with Lowell Liebermann’s ad hoc music. Some sequences in the fighting scenes seem improbable because of muddy dynamics, with some movement effort indicating cooperation (in the success of a lift) rather than antagonism. Finally, I appreciated the Petipa’s Rose Adagio cameo as the anatomy professor dances individually with his four assistants, promenading the last one.

 A story of psychological depths on the consequences of rejection and love deprivation, behind Scarlett’s successful ballet is a large team effort, in which the dancers' fluid interpretations are near perfect. More than the written words themselves, it was the dramatic power of the story that contributed to the novella's fame, and so it is fitting to have a (second) danced version. I would hurry book a seat. I promise, I will no longer look at full length ballets with suspicion.