I had been a fan of Matthew’s and wanted to work with him for a while, so when he had the idea of collaborating on FRANKENSTEIN, I was hooked - he knew I had a fascination with horror cinema and the macabre. I’d seen various movie adaptations over the years but never truly been a huge fan due to Hollywood taking liberties with the source material. But after re-reading Mary Shelley’s gothic romantic horror I was certain that this was a piece I would love to work on with Matthew. It was a story he wanted to tell and I wanted to visualise, so we began a two-year development process leading to the piece you see tonight.
I compiled mountains of research for Matthew because I wanted to see what excited him. He also threw imagery back at me, which helped us understand each other’s vision. Aside from Shelley’s novel, the only other source we looked at was Bernie Wrightson’s graphic novel of FRANKENSTEIN, which is full of the most beautiful ink sketches. We wanted our world to sit within a period timeframe, but not be strangled by it, which gave me more creative license to create the character’s looks. But the main inspiration was Mary Shelley’s novel - we wanted to do it justice.
When I start working on a show I do masses of research to find my way into the visual language of the play. I’m quite organic so I like to let ideas float until I know what fits the mood of the play and the words spoken by the performers. Matthew had invited April de Angelis to write a new adaptation, and rather than start the scripting process in isolation he wanted to explore it in a more devised workshop process. The show was initially conceived in a rehearsal room two years ago where we discussed plot and structure, but also the different forms of storytelling. With the novel in hand, actors performed moments from the play for us under Matthew’s direction. Many styles were tried but the fruits of that workshop are evident in the work on stage today.
April reacted very quickly and surprisingly had a draft three weeks after this workshop. What was quickly evident was that she had kept the heart and soul of the novel, as well as reimagining the piece for a modern audience. How this informed my process was invaluable. I am someone who responds to words and moods created by the text, so I can generally see a play when I read it. April’s script was very truthful and faithful, so I felt the design should reflect that; just the bare bones of what was needed to give the audience a sense of location and the integral visuals associated with FRANKENSTEIN.
FRANKENSTEIN is quite an epic play for a designer. I took the text apart and sectioned it off so that I could visualise it easily and understand the journey Victor has to go on. The next stage of the process is making lots of scale models and sketches! This helps us to understand the shape of the show, while informing what you really need to tell the story - it helps you discard unnecessary items that could get in the way. We had explored many setting ideas over two years, some abstract, some realistic. Cutting things down to a minimum was cathartic as our frame to the play was strong enough to have less in it. Less really is more at the Royal Exchange.
I love it, especially at the Royal Exchange as the proportions of the stage and proximity to the audience are perfect. It really does force you to distil a play’s meaning and mood into a strong central idea that must be able to be read from every angle that the audience sees. We as designers are stripped of quite a few of our tools to suggest mood and location - like walls! So the flooring and costumes become the canvas.
Working with the Royal Exchange’s incredible people in their settings, props and wardrobe departments, particularly Neil Gidley and Andy Bubble who are geniuses at creating the impossible and making it look effortless. The Royal Exchange’s teams are second to none in the way they can support and execute a designer’s vision no matter how difficult or demanding it is. I’ve been very lucky to have worked here many times, and my first time was aged 27 on TASTE OF HONEY. I dare to push the envelope of design in this building because I know they can take my vision and deliver something beyond my expectations.
By far the biggest challenge of this show was creating The Creature. I had seen previous versions of FRANKENSTEIN onstage and always found the creature to be disappointing for two reasons. Firstly the makeup and effect was minimal so I always found it hard believe the revulsion and terror he is meant to cause. And secondly, they would show him in full very early on, which would destroy all the mystery of who he is. As a horror film fan, my strong feeling is always the less you see in the darkness the scarier it is, a structure employed by some of the best monster movies in history. For our monster, Matthew and I took all of the directions and notes on the creature from the novel and distilled it into a man made of many pieces, from charnel house bones, morgues and as Mary Shelley grimly stated, abattoirs. The biggest challenge was translating that Creature into 3D - then creating the expressive face of the Creature himself in a way that wouldn’t obscure the performance. From day one I was convinced that the creature needed to be terrifying, but also have the capacity to break the hearts of the audience. I hope we’ve achieved this.
Frankenstein runs at the Royal Exchange 9 March - 14 April
Stephanie O’Dea is a freelance writer, currently working and living in Paris.