Bringing Frankenstein’s monster to the dance stage

David Mead talks to multi-award winning dancer Jonathan Goddard ahead of his debut as The Monster in Mark Bruce Dance Comapny’s new production of Frankenstein..

Written by Mary Shelley when just nineteen years old and initially published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein is one of the most recognisable and enduring novels in English literature. Her tale of obsessed scientist Victor Frankenstein, who creates a human-like monster before abandoning it, thus provoking it to horrible vengeance, has long fascinated writers and directors as well as readers.

Choreographer and director Mark Bruce is far from the first to adapt Shelley’s book for stage or screen. Over the years, her creation has spawned numerous offspring, from the iconic 1931 James Whale-Boris Karloff film to the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. While many adaptations stray far from the original, Goddard explains that Bruce reread the book in an attempt to come to it fresh; to free himself of past interpretations and edit out the tale’s many preconceptions.

Jonathan Goddard as The Monster in Mark Bruce’s Frankenstein
Photo Mark Bruce

Bruce’s Frankenstein is very much a narrative work, Goddard emphasises. “Mark has sort of taken the essence of the story, and set himself the challenge of boiling it down into something that can be read very easily, and that kind of has a kind of liminal feel as well. It reminds me of when we were working on Dracula and how he took that story and kind of boiled it into his own.”

The result is what Goddard describes as an episodic work, “A series of romantic era tableaux, inside of which I can kind of operate as The Monster.” Although there has been some editing out as the tale is condensed to an hour’s dance theatre, the essence of the story remains, he assures. “It’s very much the journey of the creation of the monster and then sort of how it progresses through meeting different experiences.”

Audiences can also expect Bruce’s trademark cinematic approach to storytelling and Gothic imagery, although Goddard explains that the piece is quite stripped back. “There’s not really a set. We’ve just got some boxes or gravestones.”

When it comes to his character, Goddard says he has found The Monster rather harder to play Dracula. “With Dracula, I felt, I really know how to do that. He’s 100 years old. Been around a long time. Gets tired a lot. I know what that one is,” he laughs. “Hopefully, I’m not a horrible person, but I find that kind of pure evil easier. I sort of understand what it could be, how to make it come to life. But The Monster is totally different. It’s not pure evil at all. It’s sort of empty. I struggled a bit in the beginning.”

As part of his research into the character, Goddard naturally read the novel, although, “Because it’s Mark’s version, it’s almost like I have to then forget it to be able to do his kind of pared down version. And while I’ve got loads of films downloaded, I feel I shouldn’t watch yet because I need to find out what it is for myself.”

Jonathan Goddard and Eleanor Duval in Mark Bruce’s Frankenstein
Photo Mark Bruce

But references are essential to help build what The Monster could be, he adds. “I think Mark has it in his head already. But I need to try to find it inside myself.”

Those references have turned out to be very diverse, he explains, including a 1974 film of Lou Reed dancing strangely, a late 1980s film of Michael Clarke, and a solo made with Robert Cohan just before he died, “Where he just covered me in dust and I had to just shake.”

Goodard also looked at a bit of German Expressionism and particularly cites The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, the landmark silent horror film of 1920, where he found the sleepwalker very helpful.

“Character-wise, it just took me a while, but then I realised that what The Monster wants is love, basically. I find that not too difficult and kind of interesting because it can be very innocent but also have an extreme darkness. Then it felt much easier, all of a sudden.”

The creation process with Mark Bruce starts with a lot of R&D work, Goddard explains. “We’ll come down for… Well, he likes a week. I like to do three days. I can’t go with much more than three days,” he says laughing. “He has a very strong vision in his head of what he wants and makes all the material himself. He teaches it very fast, then we work on a section or an idea. I just try and completely submit to what he wants, like the way everything moves. Then, we film it. This time, when he saw it all together, he changed a lot of things.”

Jonathan Goddard as The Monster
in Mark Bruce’s Frankenstein
Photo Mark Bruce

Bruce is very specific about what he wants, Goddard continues, “Right to the point of where the head is, where the back is. Everything is the picture that he has in his head and that he’s trying to recreate. That’s totally different to when I work with actors and directors, then you’re trying to find it in them and give them the motor.”

With actors, he explains, “You’re constantly asking questions that they have to talk about and answer, and they’re trying to discover what this could be inside of them. Whereas with a dancer, I think you go the other way round. So you’re often told, ‘Don’t do it like that, do it like this’.” Having someone demonstrate like this is gold dust to dancers, who absorb what they like and adapt it for themselves, he believes. “But if I did that with an actor, they would just be like, ‘Why are you doing it?’,” he laughs.

“I also feel I can’t judge the thing that I’m playing. If it’s angry, there’s got to be a reason why it’s angry. With The Monster, I suppose I have to feel, understand if people keep treating you in a certain way, why you would start behaving in a certain way.”

Alongside Goddard in Frankenstein are Eleanor Duval as Prometheus, Cordelia Braithwaite as the Bride of the Monster, Carina Howard as Narcissus, Dominic Rocca as Doctor Frankenstein and Anna Daly as Elizabeth. It’s lovely working with such great dancers, he says. “I really like that working with people that I really know. You have a shorthand. Ellie and I are the same age, that’s nice as well. We were at school together. We’ve known each other such a long time.”

In recent times, Goddard has become known for character roles, especially in darker pieces. “I’m not I’m not a dark person, but I’ve been blessed with this face. So there you go,” he says, laughing again.

Narrative is something he came to, however. “I started with Janet Smith. That wasn’t particularly narrative. And then Richard Alston. No narrative at all. Then I did loads of Cunningham, which is like the opposite of narrative! I guess Mark was the first person that I started doing that work with. And now I really like it. Doing movement direction at the same time has sort of put me more into that world as well. So, yes, now I prefer a narrative. I feel a bit scared now when it’s just abstract.”

But abstract or narrative, he feels he’s always graduated towards choreographers like Alston, Bruce, Kim Brandstrup or Shobana Jeyasingh, who are interested in dancers as individuals and they can bring to the work.

Returning to Frankenstein, how would he like people to regard The Monster and take away from the work? After a pause, he says, “Maybe just seeing it as sort of being a mirror. Because it’s empty, The Monster is always kind of a mirror for an age. So in all the films, when I see the monster from the ‘20s or from the ‘80s, it feels like it always mirrors that age. I don’t know if I can do that. But I think that would be interesting if that if people could see the monster as a kind of void.”

Frankenstein by Mark Bruce Company with Jonathan Goddard as The Monster premieres at Frome Memorial Theatre (March 15 & 16, 2024) before touring to Dance East, Ipswich (March 22 & 23); and The Place, London (March 26-28)