For years, it stood abandoned. Regal, but menacing. Haunted? Possibly.
Then on Wednesday, the old Townsville West State School building was reborn.
Blood crimson light pierced the towering brick façade; figures could be seen darting between windows, trying to keep to the shadows. But they would soon step forward from the darkness, beckoning the waiting crowd inside. One audience whisked into the building’s lowest, darkest room – to experience the world of the Creature – while another ascended the building’s front staircase and became the fourth wall in Doctor Victor Frankenstein’s opulent bedroom. There would be no single point of view tonight: both stories were ready to be told.
Theatre iNQ’s Frankenstein, adapted by Townsville’s Terri Brabon, is an old classic completely reimagined. The intrigue begins from the moment you book your ticket – and are asked to pick a side. Doctor or Creature. Creator or monster. However, never before has a Frankenstein production so honestly made the audience question who the real monster is.
While both sides begin separately, experiencing the tale of their chosen being, the stories begin to intertwine and switch perspectives during Act Two, before Act Three delivers an epic finale with both teams marrying together to witness what becomes of characters that seem all too real.
There is ample opportunity for the actors to lose the audience – both figuratively and physically – in a show such as this: with three acts separated by 15 minute intermissions, and the added temptation to further investigate the intriguing old building as we moved between scenes, opportunity for distraction lurked around every corner. But it didn’t once reveal itself. Never have I partaken in an audience that was so incredibly focused. No one dared to lean over and whisper to their neighbour, no one even shifted in their seat. You could have heard a pin drop.
The setting provided some limitations that many production companies would put in the ‘too hard’ basket, but Theatre iNQ has risen artfully to the challenge. The lighting element was a particular stand-out for me and the clever use of matches, lamps, pendant lights and even torches in place of stage lights coloured me impressed throughout the entire show. Similarly the use of long, menacing shadows and of the building’s existing layout played into the production team’s hands beautifully.
Lighting was also an indicator of flashbacks, as you are taken back to Victor Frankenstein’s cold blue childhood – memories that are clearly replaying in Victor’s mind, as the child actors perform in the foreground of their grown counterparts. The flashback that will stick with me is young Victor’s interaction with his father, occurring just behind modern-day Victor interacting with the Bride. The couples are exact mirror images throughout this scene; it could not have been any better choreographed, and conveyed both stories perfectly.
In the Act Two intermission, the reasoning behind separate teams becomes apparent: as members of team Creature, Act One made us feel for the creation and understand his struggle; while members of the rival team we spoke to said that because they had begun from the perspective of the creator, their first impression of the Creature was of a scary beast. Both teams see all of the same scenes by night’s end, and the identity of the monster is more debatable than ever.
Mention has to be made of the incredible cast both on stage and behind the scenes, with everything from the eerie soundtrack to the hallways lined with in-theme ushers keeping your wits about you and adding to the grandeur and professionalism of the production.
Joseph Raggatt’s Doctor and Ron Pulman’s Creature are both clear standouts. The precision of the script made the show all-the-more enrapturing: a scene of note being Michael Doris as Felix teaching wife Safie (Faduma Ali) English, as Pulman lurks unbeknownst just feet away, repeating every phrase in-sync with the couple.
This script precision was also evident in the double-ups of casting in scenes: a number of characters perform for both team Creature and team Doctor in Acts One and Two, requiring the actors to navigate the building’s staircases and hallways mid-way through scenes while audiences remain in their respective rooms unaware: however after seeing both sides of the story, the talent of the cast and mastery of Brabon’s script are both clear. This is a production that is blocked down to the last second, and is testament to the tremendous skill of the cast.
Sarah and I turned to each other after each act with jaws dropped: there really are no words to accurately describe the phenomenon that Terri and Theatre iNQ have created. We could not fault a single actor, with even the youngest members of the cast showing professionalism and talent far beyond their years – the connection between Phoebe Lavender’s young Elizabeth and Rachel Nutley’s older counterpart was truly mesmerising.
Remember that this is not a performance that starts and finishes when you take your seat inside: keep a lookout as you wander the hallways. Some scenes took place with the audience backed against a curtain, making me acutely aware of the opportunities for actors to sneak up and scare me at any moment, so was glad that Theatre iNQ didn’t resort to the easy scare – the feeling of foreboding was so much more powerful, and had me checking behind curtains and under my bed even when I’d made it to the safety of my own home.
To conclude, I must apologise to Director Terri Brabon: there truly are no words that could do your production justice. We weren’t in a theatre, we were in the Frankenstein mansion. That is the power of a moving performance: it transports you away from Townsville, and into the world of the actors before you. Accolades also to Brendan O’Connor and Michael Gleeson for incomparable sets, and to Susan and Kathy Brabon for outstanding props and costumes that left me feeling underdressed (except, obviously, for the Creature). This is an adaptation that deserves to outlive its creator: it is a legacy that Brabon should be extremely proud of, and which I hope finds homes elsewhere after the repurposing of the Townsville West building.
Who is the true monster? If you weren’t lucky enough to snap up a ticket to Theatre iNQ’s sold-out Frankenstein, then I’m sorry to say that it is you. Frankenstein may be sold-out, but that doesn’t need to stop you from applying for the waiting list! Click here.