Step into the world of Victor Frankenstein at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This article is from 2019


Manual Cinema's Frankenstein / credit: Michael Brosilow

Whether you prefer your Mary Shelley with shadow puppetry or beatboxing, we find there is a Frankenstein on the Fringe for almost every taste

It's shaping up to be the year of Frankenstein. Two centuries ago, the 18-year-old Mary Shelley diverted herself from a rainy holiday in Switzerland by writing a gothic thriller. Today, her story of the man who made a monster is everywhere you look. Novelist Jeanette Winterson has just published Frankissstein, a hi-tech fantasia about AI and cryonics, while playwright Rona Munro has a stage adaptation kicking off a UK tour in September.

Meanwhile, in the Frankenstein's monster we know as the Edinburgh Fringe, you can learn about the story's creation in Genesis: The Mary Shelley Play (C Venues), imagine a post-apocalyptic attempt to revive the human race in Quintessence (Sweet Novotel) and witness a faithful retelling of the novel in Frankenstein (theSpace on North Bridge). That's in addition to two of the most hotly tipped shows of the festival, the beatbox virtuosity of Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster and the visual magic of Manual Cinema's Frankenstein, one of four versions of the story seen in the company's native Chicago in the past year.

'We landed on Frankenstein for a number of reasons, one of which is its long cinematic pedigree,' says Drew Dir, co-artistic director of Manual Cinema. 'Another is that it's a story about the animation of lifeless matter and, as puppeteers, that's what we do.' Returning to the Fringe after the success of Ada / Ava and Lula Del Ray, Manual Cinema uses a line of technical trickery that would have impressed the scientifically minded Victor Frankenstein. As well as overhead projectors, live animation and more than 500 shadow puppets, the company fields a four-piece orchestra and draws on several cinematic genres to tells its multimedia tale. 'There's an aspect of virtuosity in our shows; being able to watch fellow human beings execute impossible tasks,' adds Dir.

Step into the world of Victor Frankenstein at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe

Manual Cinema's Frankenstein / credit: Michael Brosilow

A movie buff who grew up not only with James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (both with Boris Karloff), but also a host of dodgy spin-offs such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Dir and the team went back to the earliest silent version from 1910 as well as checking out the Kenneth Branagh treatment from 1994. 'We steeped ourselves in the earlier versions, then tried to forget them as much as possible.'

Specialising in non-verbal storytelling, the company was attracted to a monster who, as far as stage history goes, is traditionally wordless. The more they researched, however, the more they were drawn to the author's life. 'Mary Shelley had recently given birth to and lost a child,' says Dir. 'Victor Frankenstein executes the birth of a human being, which is against the normal processes of nature. We wanted to explore the context of birth and motherhood.'

Each of the novel's three narrators – an Arctic sea captain, Victor Frankenstein and the monster – is represented on stage by a different filmic style. First is the story of Shelley told with shadow puppets, then the Frankenstein narrative in the style of a silent film and, lastly, the creature's perspective with a 3D puppet and live video. 'Each technique helps you understand the inner conflict, emotions and point of view of that character,' says Dir.


Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster / credit: Joyce Nicholls

Where Manual Cinema focuses on visual storytelling, Battersea Arts Centre's Beatbox Academy is all about the power of the human voice. Earning a clutch of five-star raves when it debuted in London, Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster is not a straight adaptation but a six-microphone response to modern-day monsters and pressures of the digital age. 'We took the themes of the book and refracted them through beatboxers' lives,' says David Cumming, who worked with co-director Conrad Murray on building the show with beatboxers Aminita, Glitch, Wiz-RD, Native, ABH and Grove. 'We were inspired by the fact Mary Shelley was very young when she wrote the book, around the age of the people making the show.'

Before writing the novel, Shelley had joined in discussions with Lord Byron and her future husband Percy about 'the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of it ever being discovered and communicated'. Scientific breakthroughs had made such speculation possible and, just as she was reacting to the technological changes of her day, so the Beatbox Academy performers are inspired by the networked world of the 21st century. For these working-class musicians, however, there's a crucial shift in emphasis.

'We found they mainly identified with the monster,' says Cumming. 'There was a lot of talk about being sidelined, pushed aside and judged at a very early age for who they were and what they did. The very nature of being beatboxers meant they stepped outside of society.' As vocal percussionists, however, Cumming insists they also had a connection with Victor Frankenstein. 'Beatbox is all to do with the mouth, with breath and the ability of one body and one voice. We took that corporeal idea and breathed life into the story that way. So it's on the side of the monster without overly castigating the Frankenstein side.'

Frankenstein: How to Make a Monster, Traverse Theatre, Cambridge Street, 7–25 Aug (not 12, 19), various times, £22 (£15–£16.50). Preview 6 Aug, 10am, £15 (£9); Manual Cinema's Frankenstein, Underbelly, Bristo Square, 3–26 Aug, 2.45pm, £13.50–£20.50 (£12.50–£19.50). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £7–£12.

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