Mary Shelley’s ‘ghost story’ Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus was written to express her disquiet at the rapid advances of the Industrial Revolution, and at apparently uncontrolled advances in experimental science. The story has since been reworked for stage and screen scores of times, the latest being Nick Dear’s adaptation at the National Theatre.
I have a personal interest in this production as Abbey Wright, who directed Hidden Glory, is working on it as Staff Director (assisting the Director, Danny Boyle). I bought tickets early, and chose to go to one of the preview performances rather than waiting until after the press nights.
Hundreds of bloggers have reviewed the previews, not always fairly as it is a complex production and the whole point of previews is to iron out the gremlins. I don’t propose here to offer a full review of the performance I saw last night. Let’s just say that I’m very glad to have seen it, and if you’ve got tickets (the rest of the run is sold out) you can continue to feel smug about it.
What I will say is that in Dear and Boyle’s production the role of science is almost incidental to the moral tension between Victor Frankenstein and his ‘Creature’: it simply provides the set-up for a relationship in which power betrays and ultimately corrupts innocence.
Hubris is a concept as old as civilisation. Science may be the means by which Victor makes his fatal bid for immortality, but for the Frankensteins of today, politics, money or warfare can do the job just as well.
Last night I went to see a live relay of Simon McBurnie’s A Disappearing Number in our local cinema, largely prompted by Miranda Cook (who plays Dorothy in Hidden Glory) enthusing about its recent London performance. I missed the Complicité production when it originally opened in 2007: having won numerous awards it’s been all over the world before its final tour in the UK this year.
I thought it was one of the best things I’d seen for ages. I loved Saskia Reeves’s performance – I saw some similiarities between the characters of Ruth and Dorothy Hodgkin, the combination of slight social diffidence with absolute command of and love for her subject, plus incredulous delight at falling in love, and using laughter to cover nervousness, embarrassment or even pain.
I thought the staging was breathtaking, creating so many moods and spaces with such economy. And I was surprised at how few people came on for the curtain call – somehow it felt like a much larger cast.
The story of Ramanujan, the self-taught mathematical genius who came to Cambridge in 1914 to work with G.H. Hardy, is inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. Interweaving the historical narrative with modern characters was much more than a device, as McBurnie created moving parallels of love and loss as well as a means of explaining the maths in simple terms. I thought his courage in including complex content with quite a lot of exposition paid off, and not just because the performers were excellent.
I am lost in admiration at the way he wove together the themes of continuity and connection (the way he exploits the dramatic possibilities of the telephone is masterly) , in a way that made the endings seem optimistic rather than tragic. The use of music (by Nitin Sawhney, dance and video gave physicality to an otherwise intellectual theme and increased the emotional impact.
I gather this was the last performance of the current run, but who knows when anyone might think of reviving it, so I’m so glad to have grabbed the last chance to see it.
Last Friday I went up to London to see a work-in-progress performance of The Nature of Things – the ‘other’ Dorothy Hodgkin play. I don’t regard it as competition as Esther Shanson’s work is so much more ambitious and complex than Hidden Glory. More than two years ago she set out to tell the stories of three women crystallographers – Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin – using dance, drama, music and both still and video projection. The result was a revelation, though still unfinished.
The Place, London’s leading centre for contemporary dance, has supported Esther’s production and it was packed for the free show with an eclectic mix of dance lovers, crystallographers, Dorothy’s relatives and colleagues, and curious members of the public. We saw the first act, which focuses mainly on Kathleen Lonsdale but introduces the other two women, and a video clip from the second act which uses gradually multiplying images of dancers performing to a fast jazz score to represent the three-dimensional structure of insulin.
I know I come to the subject with a lot of prior knowledge and interest, but I was riveted throughout. Esther and her company have developed a wonderfully touching script that fleshes out the relationships between Lonsdale, her mentor William Bragg and her husband Thomas. An altogether more spiky relationship characterises the pairing of a reincarnated Rosalind Franklin and James Watson as they review the history of structural molecular biology. Dorothy’s early, tentative steps in both science and love feature in this first act, but we will have to wait for the second for her ultimate triumph, the solution of insulin.
I’m less qualified to comment on the dance elements, but using dancers to represent the molecules that the three women studied brings out the personal relationships each had with her subject, and the sense of trying to pin down an elusive quarry. For DNA, the extraordinary aerialist Ilona Jäntti wove patterns with her body suspended between two ropes hung from above the stage.
We are promised the complete piece in 2011, and I for one can’t wait.