Frankenstein review: ‘sometimes lightning strikes twice’

Our dance critic reviews The Royal Ballet's interpretation of Mary Shelley’s neo-gothic novel.

Sometimes lightning strikes twice. Possibly with that electrifying possibility in mind, the Royal Ballet has pushed the boat out and commissioned a new, full-evening narrative ballet from the promising young choreographer Liam Scarlett. In 2014, a similar commission yielded Christopher Wheeldon’s The Winter’s Tale, which returned to the repertory this season to draw and delight the public. Mr. Scarlett’s staging of Frankenstein follows the same structural path, interpreting a well-known literary source—in this case, Mary Shelley’s neo-gothic novel—in dramatic and passionate movement.

Assisted and occasionally overwhelmed by his inventive collaborators—original score by Lowell Liebermann, striking designs by John Macfarlane and captivating projections by Finn Ross—Mr. Scarlett moves the action at a brisk clip from family household to the anatomy theatre where Frankenstein studies and experiments, and from cemetary to ballroom to tavern, racing to cram young love, male friendship, marriage, scientific creation, fear, vengeance and several gruesome deaths into two and a half hours.

It’s a tight squeeze and maybe overly ambitious to stick so closely to the convoluted narrative. Though the programme outlines the story comprehensively, Mr. Scarlett evidently felt compelled to depict the details himself, so exposition in mime and naturalistic behavior occupies most of the evening.

When he concentrates on the emotional relationships, he produces his most interesting choreography, particularly for Federico Bonelli as Frankenstein and Steven McRae as the amazingly creepy Creature. Surrounding the tale with a convincing frame, the male ensemble eagerly displays the bounding youthful spirit of students, and as guests at Frankenstein’s wedding ball, the couples dip and swirl through a luscious celebratory waltz.

The pas de deux, however, make the strongest impression, describing the interplay among the characters through dance rather than simple mime. In the shifting combinations the story demands, Mr. Scarlett pairs Frankenstein, his wife, his monster, his best friend and his young brother—on opening night, a gifted boy named Guillem Cabrera Espinach. Sharing a similar vocabulary, they all invest it with personal intensity that fleshes out the thin choreography and builds excitement steadily through the three long acts.

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Frankenstein does not show Mr. Scarlett at his best—he has struggled to make one-act narrative works cohere—but who would refuse a chance to create the popular success this company hoped to achieve?

In repertory until 27 May. The Winter’s Tale also continues in repertory through 10 June.