Sarah Richardson - Observer Mondays Director - gives us an insight into the first week of rehearsals for Frankenstein, directed by Matthew Xia



One of the questions I’m focusing on during my time as Observer Mondays Director is ‘How does a director communicate their vision for a production to the cast and creative team to ensure that everyone is working in the same imaginative world?’ During rehearsals a director’s vision for a production will be shared with and built upon by members of the creative team, production staff, staff from other departments (the huge meet & greet for Frankenstein is evidence of how many people it takes to create a production) and of course the cast, who will physically inhabit this imagined world and in turn communicate it to the audience. Along the way there will be many opportunities for this vision to become fractured and lose its clarity. I’m interested to observe how Matthew will keep everyone moving together in the same direction.


Before the design presentation Matthew gives a brief introduction to the production and we get our first glimpses of the direction he will be taking it in. He talks about why he wanted to do this story, the themes and ideas within it that interest him (the ‘other-nisation’ of people is one theme that gets a mention). He also talks about stylistic ideas. The production won’t be naturalistic, “we’re not making the book, we’re making the play” he notes at one point. He refers to Victor Frankenstein’s state of mind throughout the play, “the fractured nightmare of his fevered brain”, and how this has been replicated in the structure of the script and will be echoed in the design. He also tells us that he has been working with key members of the creative team on this production for over two years now. It’s clear that days, if not weeks, worth of conversations about this production have taken place before anyone even stepped near the rehearsal room today.

The designer takes over for the design presentation and we see the physical world that will be created for this production on a scale model of the Royal Exchange module and through photographs and drawings shown via a laptop. Again several themes are mentioned; it’s period, but relaxed period (historically accurate benches of scientific equipment but also neon strip lighting). Film references are dropped in; Hellraiser gets a mention, as do the iconic Hollywood Frankensteins which are quickly put to one side. The science of fear is discussed and the power of suggestion versus all-out gore. Darkness is important and again the words ‘fractured and fevered’ are mentioned echoing Matthew’s vision for the production.

After lunch Matthew and the cast sit round a large table for the first read through of the script. Also in attendance are some of the creative team; the composer & sound designer, lighting designer, movement director and writer. Everyone listens intently as the characters are voiced by the cast for the first time. Afterwards, Matthew invites the cast to share any thoughts or impressions from the text. Although he and the creative team have already done a lot of work on this production it’s obvious that he values hearing other ideas and thoughts, is interested in gaining new insights.


On Day 2, the session starts with a look at the linear narrative of the book which is, in parts, quite different to the play’s narrative. Matthew blu-taks several flip-chart sheets up on the wall detailing the events of the book and the order in which they happen. He talks the cast through them and as he does so clarifies for everyone the structure of the story, how much time passes between events and how old Victor is at each stage of the story. Matthew talks again of the fractured nature of the script’s narrative and how Victor’s nightmare creates portals that allow us to jump in and out of the linear narrative.

The flip-chart sheets remain on the wall for future reference as everyone returns to the table. Matthew starts breaking down the script into units (rehearsal-able chunks of text). He has already chosen titles for these units, which the cast scribble down as they come to them. He explains that the titles are quite ‘cool' (emotionally blank) as he wants him and the cast to discover together what’s going on in each unit. There is a sense of collaboration in how this exercise is done; Matthew gives a title, the actors read the unit, the writer (and sometimes an actor) chips in with suggested edits or alterations to the script, a discussion breaks out, Matthew refers to his copy of Shelley’s Frankenstein, a point is clarified or agreed upon or Matthew asks if the point can be held on to and returned to at another stage, and everyone moves on to the next unit. Throughout Matthew drops in stylistic notes, anchoring everyone back to his vision of a story being retold through a fractured nightmare.

By lunchtime a third of the script has been worked through but before everyone disperses Matthew asks the composer & sound design if they would share a piece of music that has been created for the production. Everyone sits and listens and suddenly the ideas for the production that Matthew has been talking about appear around us in sound form; period but not period, fraction and distortion, a retelling of youth and happier days. It’s an exciting moment and gives everyone an insight into how the different elements of this production will weave together to create the world of the play.


• Set your stylistic stall out right from the start. Repeating a few key words and themes helps anchor the company to your vision for the production.

• Table work can help to combat first day nerves. Allowing time for conversations about the text gives the company time to get to know each other and feel comfortable together.

• Decisions don’t have to be made straight away. At this early stage it’s fine to bank an idea for consideration later on, to keep things open.

Frankenstein runs 9 March - 14 April 2018, Theatre

Observer Mondays is an Open Exchange Opportunity - sign up here for opportunities and to find out when Observer Mondays applications reopen.