CELLAR DOOR THEATRE
BY ALEXANDER DEFERT
CELLAR DOOR'S LATEST VENTUrE is a fantastic accomplishment.
The over-exposure of famous stories can often lead to a caricaturization of the moral tales at their hearts. In recent times this is a fate that has befallen Mary Shelley’s tale of ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’; often being reduced to an over simplistic ‘evils of science/don’t play God’ parable and yet, the great success of Cellar Door’s latest outing is that it restores a much needed third dimension to both the plot and the characters who shape it.
Working from the Nick Dear script, Teja Boocock has managed to craft an exceptional and genuinely engaging piece of theatre. Much like the creature it portrays so well, her adaption is a touchingly flawed masterpiece which transcends its more obvious limitations with a depth of characterisation that often leaves one open-mouthed and heartbroken simultaneously. Rather than the cardboard ‘cut out and paste’ approach to the story which has plagued lesser adaptions, we are treated instead to an intelligent, thoughtful and (for the most part) subtle exploration of the play’s core themes, where the narrative focus lies on rationality vs emotivism. Both present two faces; the rational oscillating between the civilizing effect of education and its cold, cruel, dissection of the world, whilst the emotional veers between Eden-like innocence and hell-born destructive hatred. In finding a message which advocates a marriage of the two best features of each (embodied in De Lacy and Elizabeth’s characters) Cellar Door’s production is one that realises its own flaws, and is all the stronger for them.
Such world building would not be possible without the jaw dropping efforts of the set design, musical accompaniment and make-up artists. Their work was, with the exception of on misbehaving smoke machine, breath-taking to behold. In particular, the lighting design delivered a veritable feast of storytelling delights that enthralled the senses and enhanced the play dramatically.
And then, of course, there are the performances of the actors. Ah the performances… where to begin? I suppose it’s unavoidable that we start with the monster, which featured a performance from lead actor Thomy Lawson that was simply astounding in its brilliance. The creature’s realisation of consciousness was a masterclass in physical acting, with the exploration of its lungs and vocal chords as intricate and detailed as those of its limbs and extremities. As the play progressed, Lawson’s portrayal was palpable with a tragic sense of innocence and child-like discovery gradually soured by human experience. That the audience keenly felt each degradation the monster experienced is testament to the quality of the performance given.
Special mentions must also be made for Claire Hennelly, Sophie Stemmons and Aaron Sinclair. Their performances of The Bride, Elizabeth and Frankenstein Sr/Rab all brought a quality and range to characters who have long been nothing more than slightly more animated backdrop to the play’s events. Stemmons’ Elizabeth was intellectually curious, compassionate and far more shrewd then her calculating fiancée, providing an excellent foil for his inhumanity, and her fate was transcended from a plot point into a deeply felt tragedy of its own as a result. Likewise, Sinclair’s performance was similarly nuanced; with his Rab in particular providing some excellent moments of well-placed levity. But it was Claire Hennelly’s physical sequence with Thomy Lawson that provided what was, by far, the most moving and heart achingly beautiful moment of the play. The animalistic, and yet deeply human, dynamic saw both actors take on a physical embodiment of raw love and mutual acceptance that is difficult to describe. Trust me, it would be worth the price of admission for that alone. I very nearly cried right there and then, and only wish I could see more of it.
The irony of a play called ‘Frankenstein’ is that the eponymous character can often find himself playing second fiddle to his creation, and so it proved with Niall Potter’s ‘Victor Frankenstein’. This is not to say that his performance was poor or underwhelming. On the contrary, he artfully portrayed Victor’s sneering dismissal of human connection in a convincingly abhorrent manner and his ending realisation of this mistake provided one of the play’s more exceptional moments of pathos. Yet there was a nagging sense that he never quite matched his co-star’s Monster. In many ways, this is the fault of the script (noticeably weaker in the second half) rather than the actor; being unfairly weighted in the creature’s direction for both stage time and narrative focus. Yet there is a necessity as such to ensure that Victor grabs his few moments of emotional significance with as much gusto as possible, and I simply felt that not enough was made of these. In fairness, this is a problem that has plagued much larger and Hollywood level castings of the Nick Dear Script, and my observation is more a tinge of regret than a criticism of acting performance. Potter was serviceable, intricate and interesting to watch; perhaps all that can reasonably be expected of the character in the script that was used.
Otherwise, the ensemble cast were gifted and unselfish in their own performances, and deserve a shout-out for their unwavering dedication to minor roles in service to a larger story. Although some of the physical sequences were a little clunky, the energy from the performances went a long way towards vindicating their usage by making them compelling to watch and there was clearly a great deal of rehearsal involved in achieving this.
As noted before, there are some flaws that deserve a mention. Following on from criticisms that their last show ‘Corpse Bride’ was a little too similar to previous adaptions, Cellar Door appeared to have played it a little safe with some aspects of ‘Frankenstein’ as well. The creature’s birth, amongst other scenes, was strikingly similar to the original National Theatre production, and a more innovative or experimental approach to these may have improved the play (though Nick Dear is infamous for his attitudes towards script interpretation, so perhaps this is less their mistake than his). Tangentially, the birth is almost identical to that used for the Replicants in the recent Blade Runner 2049 trailer. The trailer came after the performance, so this is certainly coincidental, yet it was interesting to see the convergent evolution of creative ideas.
The background music also was, at times, a little patronising to the audience in telling it what to feel rather than allowing itself to organically influence the audience, and it’s continuous presence sometimes swamped crucial scenes; robbing them of greater depth. A good example of this was the confrontation between Victor and his father, where the music undercut the tension of the scene by never allowing the silences or remarks exchanged to become painful or awkward.
The puppet used for William was aesthetically out of whack with the rest of the show, and its ‘Grinning Man’-esque features gave one a distinct ‘uncanny valley’ feeling which sucked the audience out of the story some-what (not helped by some stiff and unnatural piloting).
Finally, there is the question of whether the oedipal/electra complex subtextual message of a female monster and a male creator fits thematically with the message of the play. This is almost entirely down to personal interpretation, and has no bearing on the quality of the production, yet the obviously female form of the creature (and certain scenes of straddling Victor) did nothing to help the perception that this was an experiment in gender bending that doesn’t entirely work. Perhaps this is fitting given the character.
It is important to note that these criticisms do not detract from what is, at heart, a bold and ambitious performance that successfully sets new bars of what is possible for students engaged in theatre, and I am more than a little miffed that I am unable to watch it again with the also extraordinarily talented Akshay Khanna’s switch for Thomy Lawson. A mightily impressive showing from what is rapidly becoming a hugely impressive and exciting theatre company. I look forward to Cellar Door’s next outing with bated breath.