Edinburgh Fringe 2019
Frankenstein by Manual Cinema is a masterpiece. This stunning show combines handmade shadow puppetry, cinematic techniques, 3D puppetry, acting, live music and foley art to create a beautifully fresh take on The Modern Prometheus. The intricate combination of these elements miraculously form a visual story full of heart and soul.
Manual Cinema were last seen in Edinburgh at the 2016 Fringe with Ada/Ava which also combined shadow puppetry with live actors to tell a moving tale. However, Frankenstein takes their signature style to a whole new level. Although adding more complicated techniques to an already elaborate form of theatre could be a recipe for disaster, for Manual Cinema it has meant quite the opposite.
To begin, several performers layer shadow puppets from 4 overhead projectors with actors performing in silhouette to tell the story of Mary Shelley herself. The audience can see the wondrous combination of these elements projected on a large screen and, simultaneously, the mind-boggling process that creates it. The author’s backstory is very touching and adds great depth to the storytelling, sowing the seeds of themes to emerge later on. Then we launch into the main meat of the Frankenstein story with the added element of acting to camera in a witty silent movie style. Furthermore, there is a brilliant tabletop puppet of the Monster that is cleverly filmed to add a softer texture to the overall picture. This is all soundtracked by eerie and beautiful live music performed on an eclectic array of instruments including flute, cello and plant pots.
This may sound like it is all too much and, to and extent, it is. Nevertheless, the way the eye darts from the performers whipping out shadow puppets in the perfect order to the amazing impressionist image on screen and back again is all part of the experience. Watching the performers navigate the puppets, the stage and each other is a sight to behold – they move from station to station like a wonderfully well oiled machine. One can only imagine how many hours of planning and rehearsal went into a production as intricate as this.
This performance is exciting, not only because if one person falls out of sync the whole piece goes off kilter, but because it is a well paced story that has high drama where needed. Equally, in the quieter moments there is real emotional impact, especially as the Monster begins to discover the world with childlike wonder. The choice to use a 3D puppet for the Monster at certain points is very effective as its movements can be more nuanced and cloddish than the slick, sharp shadow puppets. It is this kind of detail that truly makes the piece breathtaking.
In addition to this detail there are brilliant eccentric touches such as instruments on stage that play themselves and the fact that as the Monster is given life, all the musicians pull down steampunkish goggles. The design of Frankenstein is a feat to behold – the costumes and wigs are all carefully chosen to cast distinctive silhouettes, the shadow puppets made to convey subtle movements and the stage layout carefully constructed to allow all the various actions and techniques to happen smoothly. As a designer and puppeteer myself, I am in awe.
The performers are incredibly polished, not only in their technical brilliance but also as convincing actors. Their movements in silhouette are clear and their performances to camera are mesmerising – seeing expressive faces on the screen adds a magical human touch that was lacking in Ada/Ava. This along with the many other components comes together in exquisite harmony to tell a story that explores family, power, love and prejudice in a completely enthralling way. The atmosphere never drops for one moment – I was completely immersed.
Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein deserves to be a sell-out show. A piece of theatre that is full of boundless imagination, ingenious technique and beautiful storytelling that packs an emotional punch – it is simply outstanding.