An interview with Adaptor & Director, Séan Aydon
This new production began a major UK theatre tour in September and plays at Theatre by the Lake from Tue 10 – Sat 14 October. It has a couple of twists in its tale with a story set against the backdrop of World War Two and a female Doctor ‘Victoria’ Frankenstein.
Aydon explains his inspiration. “When I first approached the script, I wanted to make it feel more contemporary, to relate more to the ethical questions of today and to make it feel more real. But setting it in 2023 felt too clean and clinical – there is something far less scary about lasers and steel in comparison to rusted operating equipment!”.
So why World War Two? He continues, “There is no historical context that we have a better shared understanding than that of World War II. We are all aware of the horrors of the time and by setting our play amongst them it raises the stakes immeasurably; the Doctor’s experiments have the power to change the whole world in a way we can all imagine. By exploring it through the prism of that time, a world where eugenics and racial purity were growing in popularity, I’m also hoping that the audience question the ethics of today and the dangerous path that chasing “perfection” leads to.”
One of the most striking changes in this adaptation is the gender swap of the protagonist, transforming Doctor Victor Frankenstein into Doctor Victoria Frankenstein. The switch has significant influence over the dynamics and the overall message of the play.
Aydon says, ”The biggest impact of having a female doctor is the use of the word mother and all the connotations that go with it. When the Creature calls her ‘Mother’ it’s a chilling reminder of the responsibility we have when creating life and how distorted the relationship can become.”
Adapting a renowned novel like Frankenstein for the stage presents its own set of challenges. In this case, Aydon approached the original text as a starting point for an entirely new play. While major plot points remain intact, very little dialogue was directly lifted from the novel, allowing for the exploration of Shelley’s ideas in a fresh context.
Aydon elaborates, “The book itself is not particularly theatrical; it is told in a series of letters. But I wanted to retain that element of it feeling like a “ghost story” told in the past tense. I love the idea of two people sitting by a fire, telling a story that grows in the audiences’ mind until the tension is almost unbearable. True fear exists in the imagination”. There’s no question that Doctor Frankenstein’s story is an enduring popular one, with a host of productions over the years on both stage and screen. Emma Stone will be a female Frankenstein’s monster in the upcoming film ‘Poor Things’, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. The Hammer reworking in 1957 with Christopher Lee was a huge hit and spawned six sequels whilst Boris Karloff’s 1931 creature is often lauded as definitive. Less scary, but no less notable is Mel Brooks’ hilarious parody, Young Frankenstein (1974) starring and co-written by Gene Wilder. More recently Tim Burton’s stop-motion Frankenweenie featured the voices of a host of stars including Winona Ryder, Martin Landau and Martin Short and Frankenstein’s story got a rather different treatment in the direct-to-video Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein.
At the National Theatre, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch famously alternated the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature in Danny Boyle’s 2011 production and they went on to share both the Laurence Olivier Award and Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Play for their respective performances.
Why does the story of Doctor Frankenstein hold such enduring fascination? Aydon puts it down to a number of factors. Importantly, it’s the very first science fiction novel, a genre that continues to captivate audiences as scientific advancements bring its themes closer to reality. Furthermore, its themes are timeless: we are still questioning humanity’s responsibility toward one another and right now, with the boom in AI, the news is full of the, often unchecked, progress of science and technology. And of course the eternal question of nature versus nurture will always strike a nerve with every parent and carer.
The fascination with horror stories, both on stage and screen, reflects our inherent desire to be scared. While cinema offers realistic portrayals of horror, theatre taps into the power of imagination and the present moment. The absence of a screen allows the audience to be fully immersed, heightening the tension and fear. Productions like Andy Nyman’s “Ghost Stories” and Robert Icke’s psychological horror adaptations have excelled in leveraging the strengths of theatre to create truly terrifying experiences.
What does Aydon hope the audience will take away from this new adaptation? He says, “I want people to leave this production of Frankenstein realising they haven’t relaxed any of the muscles in their body for the last hour.”
One thing is for sure, this clever new version is sure to provide an unforgettable theatrical experience for theatregoers.
Aydon concurs, “If you love gripping drama, if you love a good story well-told, if you want to be laughing and before you know it find your heart in your mouth, if you want to be left arguing about which character was in the right for the next few days – you should book to see Frankenstein.”
For tickets, go to Frankenstein – Theatre by the Lake