The cast of Frakenstein | Brisbane Arts Theatre (Pic: Geoff Squires)

The idea of Frankenstein or, rather, the creature he created by electrifying a corpse,  has been with us for so long that it sometimes comes as a surprise to learn that he’s only been in existence for 200, appearing in a ghost novel by Mary Shelley, the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, in 1813.

We think of the monster, here called simply The Creature, as a mythic beast, often in a cartoon version like Lurch, with nuts and bolts sticking out of his neck, staggering around like a drunkard and acting irrationally and brutally.  But the real Creature is a more subtle creation than that, and Shelley’s story is more than just a Gothic horror. There’s a serious moral message here, about the dangers of trying to play God, and about the potentially destructive results that can occur when a creation becomes more powerful than its creator.

This is the angle that Brenna Lee-Cooney has taken in this intense yet colourful adaptation, where she uses the resources of all kinds of theatre practices from mime to Butoh techniques and contemporary dance. She has called on the skills of some of Brisbane’s masters of stagecraft in the form of Eugene Gilfedder, who wrote the music as well as taking a number of roles; Brian Lucas, the inspired dancer and choreographer; Geoff Squires, who achieves spectacular lighting effects; Guy Webster for sound; and Lee-Cooney herself for a glorious conglomeration of everything in a busy, multiple-purpose set.  She also designed and made the costumes (the Gilfedder/Lee-Cooney team between them seem to be able to achieve anything) which reflect the early 19th century setting of the novel, with touches of weird fantasy.

So, to begin with, it’s a good-looking and skilfully realised production. But the cast help to bring the macabre fantasy alive. Cameron Hurry as The Creature makes a painful evolution from deformed monster to a tortured full human being, and as his physical movements strengthen and his scars disappear, he becomes, as Shelley intended, a thing to be pitied more than shunned, because Frankenstein has made the huge mistake of giving him a heart, and so he longs for love, which in his case can only be destructive.

Andrew Lowe as Frankenstein is a weak troubled man, torn between vengeance and pity for this thing that he has created, and he has little to do except bewail what he has done and fear for his soul. This weakness makes perfect sense, and we can have no pity for this foolish man who, like so many aspirational creators, never thinks through the possible results of his work. Eugene Gilfedder makes swift and always believable costume and character changes, giving each separate role enough authenticity to enable us to make the mental shifts necessary, while Zoe de Plevitz and Johancee Theron as the hapless women victims bring a depth that we might not have expected into their vapid Regency womanhood.

But more than anything, it’s the concept behind this production that gives it a compelling power, especially the use of the wheel to suggest all kinds of ethical comparisons. Leonardo’s huge Vitruvian wheel is the focus of the set as it hangs at the back of the stage, providing often ironic variations on the people who inhabit it, so far from Leonardo’s perfect creation. Another more mobile wheel is that used in German acrobatics, and it becomes the Catherine Wheel in its original state as an instrument of torture. Everything in the set has some symbolic meaning if you want to take it, but you can also sit back (or, more likely, perch on the edge of your seat) and be fascinated, terrified, sometimes amused but never bored by this truly impressive adaptation of a tale that has held the Western world in awe for 200 years.

And it’s not just another piece of Gothic horror, this myth of the creator losing control of the thing created — Australian physicist and science writer Margaret Wertheim, author of Pythagoras’ Trousers,  has documented the true story of an living American inventor who has created a computer so advanced that it now has a mind of its own and often refuses to obey its creator. A sobering thought indeed, so don’t write Frankenstein’s monster off as the product of an over-vivid imagination spurred on by a drunken midnight party — as the old saying goes, anything imaginable is possible, and there are more things in heaven and earth that are dreamed of in our philosophy.

The details: Frankenstein plays the Brisbane Arts Theatre until May 18. Tickets on the venue website.