Deep below stairs at the Royal Opera House, a daring new creation is rumbling into life. It is a blustery day in April, and in a vast studio behind the main auditorium a rehearsal is beginning for the Royal Ballet’s latest original production: a bold three-act adaptation of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece.
Opening night is less than two weeks away, but the project remains in an evolving state. In the rehearsal room, ominous props clutter the floor’s perimeter: an alarmingly incomplete cadaver lies on a table; Georgian-era surgical equipment is strewn here and there; the odd body part sits pickled in a jar.
Living specimens, in the form of Lycra-clad dancers, contort themselves into impossible shapes to stretch their muscles. A full panel of professional observers is in place, too – among them three ballet coaches, two pianists and a notator, who will record every flinch of the production on paper for posterity.
In the middle of it all, Liam Scarlett, Frankenstein’s bespectacled 29-year-old creator and choreographer, moves slowly through some steps, unaccompanied and muttering a count to himself as he goes.
Moments later, he stops his graceful plodding and stands upright. ‘Yes,’ he announces, like a professor seizing upon the solution to a particularly nagging equation.
‘Yes. That’ll work.’ Scarlett is the Royal Ballet’s artist in residence, a post created by the company’s director, Kevin O’Hare, when the former announced he was giving up dancing to pursue a full-time choreographic career in 2012.
Having produced shorter works at Covent Garden and around the world, Frankenstein sees Scarlett handed the reins of his first full-length ballet on the main stage. Even taken alongside the Royal Ballet’s increasingly inventive recent programmes – led by Christopher Wheeldon’s lauded 2014 transformation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale – Frankenstein is an ambitious choice of source material.
Shelley’s story of a young science student who cobbles together a human from old body parts has received innumerable film and theatrical treatments, including Danny Boyle’s Olivier Award-winning National Theatre play in 2011, but rarely has its retelling been attempted in dance, and never on this scale. Scarlett, who knows his production may not be for everyone, acknowledges that the project comes with no shortage of potential artistic difficulties.
But this is a story he has always envisioned as a ballet. ‘When you go through the ideas for a full-length ballet, you look at a million different stories, some obscure and some well known,’ he tells me.
‘Something about Frankenstein appealed to me as a narrative ballet, especially in the original period setting. The novel is beautiful. I’d first read it when I was about 11 and kept rereading it, so this seemed an opportunity to reinvent what people thought.’
O’Hare recalls the moment, two years ago, when Scarlett nervously stepped into his office to pitch the idea. Unlike most original ballets, just its name comes with preconceptions.
‘I was quite taken aback at first,’ O’Hare says. ‘It wasn’t a title I’d thought about as a potential ballet, especially with all that had been done with it, but Liam explained his vision, and what sort of a team he wanted to assemble.
It was quite obvious that he knew how to make it work, and that if we want to create the classics of the future, this is the sort of thing we should be doing.’
Scarlett’s Frankenstein, a co-production with the San Francisco Ballet, has subtly streamlined the original text, the scope of which – it spans decades and multiple continents – means an entirely faithful stage adaptation is practically impossible.
Given the novel’s epistolary structure, Scarlett, who adapted the text without a dramaturge, has been able to choose the story’s most salient moments and compose a narrative suited to his art form.
The result is a dark period romance that ruminates on the consequences of devotion and abandonment between the Creature, Victor Frankenstein and his love, Elizabeth Lavenza.
‘The way Shelley tells it, in memories and relics and little bits, it’s almost easy to dip in and out,’ says Scarlett, who avoided watching recent versions.
‘Mine retains all the key scenes, but not necessarily in the same order or setting.’ The first person Scarlett called after O’Hare gave him the green light was John Macfarlane, a legendary designer with whom Scarlett has worked at the Royal Ballet several times, most recently on 2014’s Auden-inspired The Age of Anxiety.
Macfarlane says the task of bringing a 1790-set Frankenstein to life – complete with a working anatomy theatre, costumes for a ball and scene changes – was manna from heaven.
‘Liam gave me a very good synopsis, then I just got to work,’ he says. ‘It all developed quite quickly as I wanted it to appear largely monochromatic, building to a glittering and colourful final act.’
To create a scalpel-precise anatomy-theatre scene, central to Frankenstein’s sometimes gruesome first act, Macfarlane visited Europe’s oldest surgical theatre – preserved as a museum near London Bridge – before sending hand-drawings of every piece he needed to the prop department at the Royal Opera House, where the Royal Ballet has been resident since 1946.
‘They relished it there,’ he says, laughing. ‘You ask that prop team for a foetus preserved in formaldehyde, and they’ll say, “Great! How many?” Everything came back so meticulously done – far better than anything I could imagine.’
While small items were made on-site, the larger sets, such as an imposing, double-height cloth fire wall used as a backdrop for the production’s explosive final act, have been hand-painted by Macfarlane and two others at the Royal Opera Houses’s aircraft-hangar-sized workshop in Thurrock, Essex, where pieces remain until they are transported to London in a logistical migraine tackled only before stage rehearsals.
Transforming Shelley’s prose into music to match that visual scale was the job of American composer Lowell Liebermann, another former collaborator of Scarlett’s. The novel is a page-turner, and Liebermann has matched that pace with swelling, continuous orchestration.
‘It’s kind of like writing an opera without words,’ he says. ‘There is a story there, but you have to leave the choreographer room to work.’ In an entirely original ballet, no dance steps can be created before the music, so Liebermann’s task was set against the clock.
‘I’ve had very little social life in the past year,’ he says. ‘Under normal circumstances, writing a minute of music in a day is accomplishing a lot for a composer.
I had to keep up that pace, continuously, until a 140-minute ballet was completed. That’s a tremendous challenge, but very exciting.’ To make things even trickier, Liebermann had to write a reduced piano version of his score before seeing to its louder big brother, in order to give the dancers something to start working with towards the end of last year.
Scarlett is rehearsing with the piano score today, directing a troupe of fresh-faced junior dancers in the final act’s ballroom scene, alongside his three experienced leads, all of whom are looked upon with awe by their younger colleagues.
As the Creature, the Australian Steven McRae, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet for seven years, may not have the title role in Frankenstein (a common misconception generally excused by all but enraged Shelley purists these days), but his is undeniably the most intriguing for audiences.
It is a character Scarlett sees as ideal for dance, and crucial to his empathetic telling. ‘The Creature is a blank canvas,’ he says. ‘With him, you get the opportunity to see somebody brought to life on stage without a past, and whose absence of language means he relies on movement and learning almost like a small child does.
The Creature is my baby, really, and I want to make sure he has love and guidance. I want the audience to have a feel for what he does.’ There is no large green forehead or nuts and bolts to McRae’s monster.
His costume is instead composed of extensive head make-up and a hyperrealistic bodysuit, complete with scars Macfarlane designed by drawing on to McRae’s skin during moments of inspiration in fittings.
‘The experience is fascinating, because dancers are constantly exploring their bodies,’ McRae says. ‘And with the Creature I’m developing as the character does, but still using the classical language of ballet to tell the story, which is a whole new thing for me.’
McRae will dance alongside fellow principals Federico Bonelli, a dashing Italian who in 2013 played Romeo in the company’s Romeo and Juliet, and Spaniard Laura Morera.
With Scarlett’s emphasis on romance central to his reimagining, Morera’s Lavenza has a greater part to play than in many adaptations. ‘I had never read the book,’ admits Morera, a Royal Ballet veteran of 20 years.
‘I didn’t like what I knew of the horror story, so I took some convincing, but once I read it and some essays, I realised how beautiful it was. Elizabeth might be forgotten, but she is what drives Victor.
In many ways, hers is the strength in this.’ Bonelli agrees. Frankenstein is a complex and conflicted protagonist, he says, who creates a secret far bigger than himself.
‘For a dancer, those dark moments are a kind of catharsis.’ Watching Scarlett work with the principals, all older than him, it is clear that Frankenstein is as much a collaborative piece as his personal opus.
He listens, watches, tinkers and engages with them like a pupil as well as a teacher. When the trio completes a run-through of the brutal finale, the room bursts into applause – a spontaneous ovation led by Scarlett himself.
‘This isn’t a selfish thing,’ he tells me, away from the rehearsal. ‘This is for Lau, for Fed and for Steven, the company. It’s not mine. This is for the Royal Ballet.’ In a fortnight, they will open the doors to the public.
Scarlett appears calm, but is he at all scared of what he has built? ‘When you start with nothing but end up with so much, it’s exhilarating,’ he says. Then he breaks into a smile. ‘Completely terrifying, but so exhilarating.’
Frankenstein runs until May 27. A live- stream will be broadcast to cinemas across the UK on May 18.