AUDIO REVIEW: FRANKENSTEIN, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS / DIRECTOR: SCOTT HANDCOCK / AUTHOR: JONATHAN BARNES, MARY SHELLEY / PUBLISHER: BIG FINISH / STARRING: ARTHUR DARVILL, NICHOLAS BRIGGS, GEOFFREY BEEVERS, GEORGIA MOFFETT, TERRY MOLLOY / RELEASE DATE: OCTOBER
Given the manner in which the original was written, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ought to be ideal for adaptation into the audio medium. And so it proves here, in Big Finish’s wonderful new version.
With each of the three volumes of Shelley’s story given a disc of its own in this lavish set (bonus discs contain a documentary on the production and an isolated score), there’s plenty of room for the story to breathe. Given the many previous adaptations -it is a story that many of us will think we already know - Jonathan Barnes’ dramatisation (under Scott Handcock’s supervision and direction) stays far closer to Shelley’s original than most. It is, needless to say, the story of a young scientist who dares to trespass upon God’s territory, and brings life into a patchwork creation stitched together entirely out of bits of cadavers. There are a few alterations, mostly deftly and seamlessly blended into the source novel, one of which is the seeding of the framing narrative throughout the play rather than merely topping and tailing it. It’s a modification that allows the drama to flow more effortlessly and that brings the characters more readily to life.
While the generous cast, most of whom play multiple parts, acquit themselves mostly very commendably, this is a play that is really about two characters: the eponymous Victor and his nameless Prometheus.
Arthur Darvill, who was involved in this production from its conception, plays startlingly against type as the title character. Beginning the play involved in a new sub-plot that allows for his descent into amoral perversion to appear more natural than it was previously, Darvill is almost unrecognisable as he twists and turns from deviousness to desperation and back. His Victor is a less sympathetic and yet far more plausible one than most previous portrayals, and thus a far more tragic one at the play’s conclusion.
The show-stopping performance, however, is Nicholas Briggs’, whose voice is perhaps too mellifluous for the character of Waldman in the first act, but whose choice of inflection and vocal impediment is judged to perfection when he becomes the creature in the second. As the voice of many a Doctor Who monster, Briggs was the obvious and only option to play the creature, but it’s a decision that might easily have gone wrong: a different choice of vocal mannerism might have brought inadvertent comedy or melodrama to proceedings; instead a perfect balance between revulsion and pathos is formed. The two actors complement one another faultlessly, and the scenes between them are revelatory.
Frankenstein isn’t a horror story in the accepted sense, a mistake that decades’ worth of previous versions have made. Rather, it is a story of cruel tragedy and of parental abnegation, of the creeping repulsion the reader – and here the listener – is overcome by as events unfold and depravities pile on top of one another. This version captures that sorrowful quality perfectly. There are no jump-shocks or creepy interludes, rather a mesmerising and sinister story unfolds, drawing the listener into the inner world of a man who knows and cares not about the ordinary human decencies that he strips from those around him, his creation included.
It’s a brilliant and probably in its own terms an undervalued story, and this is a fascinating, absorbing reading of it. Highly recommended.