Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein at Edinburgh Fringe 2019: elaborate, beautiful and overwhelming
I come from a cinema background as opposed to a theatrical one, so this should be easy: Manual Cinema’s Frankenstein is one of the most technically impressive shows on the Fringe.
Taking place inside the spectacular McEwan hall – surely the grandest venue this festival has to offer – Manual Cinema has set up an incredibly elaborate stage. To put this thing up and take it down in order every day must be a herculean task: you could employ multiple people solely to catalogue and sort all the objects that must be catalogued and sorted to make the show work. Taking up the majority of our eyeline is a giant white screen – the space that’ll show Frankenstein as it’s being created. Underneath, though, is a whole production studio – the space where the film will actually be made.
To our left, there’s a line of five projectors (so that scenes can be created in advance of them being needed, and to allow for superimpositions); in front of that, a live band. In the centre, there’s a miniature screen with a camera and puppet props in front of it, and behind that, a bigger incident screen to catch the images from the projectors and for actors to stand in front of as a backdrop. A camera behind this projector records the resulting image and beams it up to the main projector. Still with me? To the right of this, there’s another camera (recording B&W footage) and a selection of props; and in front of this there’s a full percussion studio – a wall of pots, pans, and even a kitchen sink, with a full-scale xylophone in front. I’ve probably missed a bunch of other stuff that’s also lying around, but you get the point – it’s a busy stage.
When the show begins, we’re instantly treated to hand-painted watercolour backgrounds, upon which are superimposed shadow puppets. At times, these puppets appear to move of their own accord, at others we can just make out the transparent sticks that move them – at both, it’s magical. Before long, actors are able to join in with the puppetry – by standing in front of the projectors, their outlines are silhouetted such that they themselves become living embodiments of shadow puppets. The way in which they interact with the two-dimensional paintings of sets as if they are three-dimensional is truly impressive. Also impressive is to see how Manual Cinema control movement and lighting in their film – superimposing an image of ‘lighting’ and flickering their hands in front of the projector to bring the image to life (the same goes for rain).
We’re never given time to feel complacent or, god forbid, bored by this creation – the shadow puppetry nicely segues into black-and-white chiaroscuro, before becoming three-dimensional puppetry, and (most interestingly) adopting the actual point of view of the monster.
The point, I guess, is that this Frankenstein is itself frankensteined together from a ridiculous number of anachronistic parts. Manual Cinema understand the theatrical potential of creation and don’t let the stage go to waste – haze drifts pensively over the performers, whilst strobe lighting and atmospheric vintage bulbs flicker and illuminate the action. At times, some of the equipment is motorised to move on its own – such as a tambourine which is hit by drumsticks unheld by any human – the effect is magic. The stage is, in its own way, an electrical scientific contraption which creates life on the screen in front of our eyes – reanimating and invigorating an ancient story into something new, a celebration of creation. Manual Cinema provides a show of so many intricate parts that it feels like one giant, awe-inspiring machine.
There are things in here that are simply mind-blowing: an understanding of cinematic grammar that most of the audience probably don’t even know you need to understand in order to pull this off; shot compositions which would be hard to pull off in real life, let alone in this highly constructed environment; camera acrobatics which are as disorienting as they are mind-blowing. Not only does Manual Cinema successfully restore the ‘magic’ in ‘magic lantern’, but they push forward into early silent movies, German expressionism, and even canvas the late-20s surrealist movement. Watching Frankenstein is like witnessing the electric history of early cinema.
There is a danger with this sort of show that the creation itself could be minimised in favour of the spectacle of creation – but the true marvel of the piece is that this Frankenstein is a powerful, compelling piece of work in its own right. Not only does it beautifully synthesise Mary Shelley’s own backstory with her horror tale, but it’s able to get straight to the dark thematic heart of that story – tragic, provocative and spine-tingling. The actors – often several per part, and almost always gender-switched – give incredible performances that channel the expressive emotion of early silent movie stars, to the point where the finished film feels from another time and place.
It’s a cross between folk-art, cinema history, gig theatre, and cutting-edge performance. Most remarkably, it’s a show whose creation is, itself, the show. Our appreciation for the film is not hindered by being able to see the method behind the magic, it’s increased – the overhead wires make the trick seem even more impressive. It’s like the most ecstatic, daring circus for the mind.