196 years of Frankenstein on stage

Posted on 29 August 2019

This October, we’re excited to be hosting a new adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein just ahead of Halloween as part of our B2 Season of Love and Belonging. Written by acclaimed playwright Rona Munro ( The James Plays ), this chilling new play places Shelley herself in the midst of the action, wrestling with her own strange creation.

But while this production offers a fresh perspective on the story, it’s far from the first time that Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece has been performed on stage. In fact, the first ever theatrical production of Frankenstein opened at the English Opera House (now the Lyceum Theatre) in 1823, where it was seen by Mary Shelley and her father William Godwin exactly 196 years ago today.

Adapted by Richard Brinsley Peake, the show was a huge success, transferring to the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden before touring to Paris and New York. Shelley herself particularly praised T. P. Cooke’s performance as the Creature, and the company’s decision to avoid naming his character on their play bills. After seeing the show, she wrote in a letter to her friend Leigh Hunt:

“The play bill amused me extremely, for in the list of dramatis personae came, ____ by Mr T. Cooke: this nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good. Wallack looked very well as Frankenstein – he is at the beginning full of hope & expectation […] The story is not well managed – but Cooke played ____’s part extremely well – his seeking as it were for support – his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard – all indeed he does was well imagined & executed. I was much amused, & it appeared to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience.”

Ben Castle-Gibb as Frankenstein and Eilidh Loan as Mary Shelley

In fact, it was Brinsley Peake rather than Shelley who first coined the line, “It lives!” which has stuck with the story in later adaptations. So successful was the show that William Godwin took the opportunity to capitalise on its popularity, arranging for the novel to be reprinted in two volumes with emendations by himself.

Just two years later, Henry M. Milner’s The Man and The Monster; or The Fate of Frankenstein would open at London’s Royal Coburg Theatre, and by 1887, the story had already embedded itself firmly enough in popular culture to be ripe for parody.

Under the pseudonym Richard Henry, dramatist and magazine editor Richard Butler and author and theatre critic Henry Chance Newton developed a musical burlesque called Frankenstein, or the Vampire’s Victim, starring Nellie Farren as Dr Frankenstein and Fred Leslie as a monster in touch with his feminine side.

The show was a flop, closing after just a week at the Gaiety Theatre, but might be seen as prefiguring later, more successful comic retellings, such as Sally Netzel’s 1972 Frankenstein’s Monster at the Dallas Theatre Centre, or the now iconic in its own right Rocky Horror Show, which sees transvestite alien Dr Frank-n-Furter create his own man in a wild and wacky world that pays irreverent homage to all manner of classic horror and sci-fi stories.

Ben Castle-Gibb as Frankenstein, Eilidh Loan as Mary Shelley and Natali McCleary as Elizabeth

In 1981, Frankenstein also had the notable honour of giving rise to what was then the most expensive Broadway flop to date, closing after 29 previews and just one official performance. The production did, however, go on to spawn a TV film, starring Robert Powell, Carrie Fisher, David Warner and John Gielgud.

Fortunately, not every musical adaptation has floundered. In 2007, Jonathan Christensen’s award-winning Frankenstein opened at the Catalyst Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, described by one critic as “a seamless combination of story, song, movement and visual arts that transcends genre.”

More recently in 2011, an adaptation by Nick Dear was developed into a high profile production at the National Theatre, directed by Danny Boyle and broadcast live in cinemas across the UK, with original music by Underworld. Its great innovation was to emphasise the connection between creator and creation by having stars Johnny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternate in the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature.

2016 also saw the Royal Ballet and San Francisco Ballet team up for a well-received dance production, choreographed by Liam Scarlett with music by Lowell Lieberman and gothic design by John Macfarlane.

Greg Powrie as Father, Ben Castle-Gibb as Frankenstein and Eilidh Loan as Mary Shelley

Our own production of Frankenstein will offer something a little different, honing in on the creative process and drawing parallels between the creative impulses of Mary Shelley writing her story, and Victor Frankenstein obsessively working on the being he brings to life.

Playwright Rona Munro said:

“Every version I’ve seen of Frankenstein becomes about Victor Frankenstein and the Creature so you have these two very iconic male protagonists. It’s been done as a metaphor for fathers and sons, and everyone talks about Prometheus and the patriarchal God, Adam the man…

“The thing that seems to get completely obliterated is that this came from the mind of an 18-year-old woman and a very intelligent and talented one at that. She went on to become a successful writer and she was probably responsible for preserving and even framing and amending the whole body of her husband’s work.

“She’s become completely invisible in the narrative of Frankenstein, and even when she is credited with its creation, it’s almost as if she did it organically or spontaneously, as if she didn’t know what she was doing and it was just a mad dream.”

Thierry Mabonga, Ben Castle-Gibb, Eilidh Loan and Natali McCleary

Co-produced by the Belgrade Theatre, Selladoor, Matthew Townshend and Perth Theatre at Horsecross Arts, Frankenstein shows at the Belgrade Theatre 2-12 October. Tickets are available to book now.

Don’t forget that you can enjoy 20% off your tickets when you book for two or more participating shows together in our multi-purchase offer.