Presented by Underbelly and Manual Cinema
McEwan Hall, Bristo Square
31st July – 26th August 2019
I went into Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein having, as usual, done no prior research and with nothing but a vague preconception that as the description had included “shadow puppets” it’d probably be something quite small – cute and dinky. Upon entering the McEwan Hall, I instantly realised I was way off base. The domed hall is used for University of Edinburgh graduations, is decorated in Italian Renaissance style, and is huge (especially in comparison to most Fringe venues). The raked seating commanded a good view of the stage, cluttered with all sorts of technical paraphernalia, some of it quite weird and wonderful – very appropriate, given the story it would be used to tell. There were two large screens, one facing the audience and one perpendicular to us, a row of old-school overhead projectors, a camera, a number of musical instruments, and various seemingly random props. Then the house lights went down, and the show began.
It is so difficult to describe the breathtaking creative genius of this show, the mixture of art and technology, magic and science. Manual cinema really does seem the best description for it – we watched a film projected onto a big screen, while simultaneously watching it being created live on stage in front of us. It felt like watching a master pianist play the most exquisite symphony on a transparent piano, with all the inner workings laid bare. The end product, the film shown on the big screen, was elegantly beautiful in itself, but watching the cogs of the machine work with such perfect precision and ingenuity transformed the experience into something truly awe-inspiring.
The work takes the form of a story-within-a-story; we are first introduced to Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, a novelist, pregnant and struggling to find artistic inspiration. Her husband, Percy, is a poet who loves his wife but unwittingly creates distance between them due to his devotion to his art. When Mary delivers her baby (“Clara”), she is overwhelmed with wonder at it as well as nervousness at the prospect of motherhood. When the baby dies unexpectedly in the night, it wounds her deeply, and creates a morbid preoccupation with death, the creation of life, and the deep bond between parent and child. Months later, on holiday in Geneva with her husband and Lord Byron, Mary enters into a competition with them to write a ghost story – and a nightmarish vision of her baby, reanimated in a flash of lightning, gives birth to the story which is said to have been the fore-runner to all sci-fi and gothic horror.
I should note here: all of this is told without any dialogue, in black and white, with only silhouettic figures, using a bewitching blend of paper shadow puppetry and live actors, with soundscapes and backing music created onstage by live musicians. It is, frankly, exquisite. But as we now move into the secondary story – that of Frankenstein itself – another element is added into the mix: our actors (all women) move to the other side of the projection screen, and begin lending their faces as well as their silhouettes to the artwork in front of us. Mary undergoes a quick costume change to become her creation, Victor Frankenstein, and we step into his story. Eventually, a tertiary storyline and art style emerges, following the perspective of Frankenstein’s monster himself, brought to life as a physical puppet. The three storylines intertwine with incredible poignancy, drama, and just the right amount of gruesomeness.
Manual Cinema has taken some liberties with both history (Shelley wrote Frankenstein before her marriage to Percy, and Clara was her third child, not the first one who died in the night) and the tale of Frankenstein, but I doubt this will bother avid Frankenstein fans given how achingly true it is to the messages and sentiment of the original novel. The lack of dialogue, the old-fashioned silent movie stylings, the mechanical genius, the emotional depth, the melodramatic rendering, and the underlying mysticism make this quite possibly the best interpretation of the classic text ever to have been made (yep, I just said that). If you are at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, you simply must see it (ignore the silly corniness of the posters, they’re a bad representation of this beautiful piece of art). In this production, Manual Cinema has brought life to a truly miraculous creation.
Previous review: Mating in Captivity @ The King’s Head Theatre