The Wasp Factory at the Royal Opera House is a dark psychological study of what is pretty disturbing source material anyway. The violence of Iain Bank's book is not carried through to this production but the dark gothic intensity of his story most definitely is.
Frank is the young 16-year old boy at the heart of The Wasp Factory. Ignored by his father, Frank is a damaged soul, wrestling with his guilt for the murder of three of his siblings. His fourth, Eric, has just escaped from a mental institution and is on his way home, throwing Frank's mind into more confusion.
I had some anxiety about whether such a bleak, violent story could be conveyed on stage but when the theatre plunged into darkness at the start of the show, a darkness only broken by a prolonged burst of white noise, I felt pretty sure that the mood of the book was going to be faithfully captured.
There is much to admire in this modern opera by director/composer Ben Frost with a libretto by David Pountney. Its setting - a large pit of dirt with a row of strip lighting above it - is stark, almost brutal but very effective (stage design by Mirella Weingarten).
Wrestling in this dirt are the three women who comprise the cast (Lieselot De Wilde, Jordis Richter, Mariam Wallentin). The three women rotate the cast of characters between them, which is at first confusing but actually incredibly effective in showing Frank's fragmented mind.
This all-female casting is also pretty astute, given the direction the story heads in, and all three women give excellent performances both vocally and physically. Their feral behaviour, burrowing in the dirt, is disturbing and really brings out Frank's deeply abnormal connection with his world.
The musical score is also moving, revealing Frank's inner emotional turmoil as he grapples with responsibility for his crimes. ("It's been years since I killed anybody. And I don't intend to. It was just a phase I was going through.")
There are some challenges however. The main one is that familiarity with the source material is required to get the most out of this production. Though the opera is sung in English, the elocution is not always clear and the lack of surtitles does mean the audience is occasionally unsure what is being said. I've read the book, though some years ago, but even so too often I was unsure where we were in the story.
As you can probably guess though, this is a very intense production, and there is no let up at all in the 80 minute production. For some in the audience, this concentration was too much and I could sense their craving for some light relief - if only literally in lighting up the stage for a bit. Their discontentment may have been exacerbated by not being able to follow what was going on.
However I found the intensity more absorbing, almost addictive, as Frank's world unravelled. I couldn't take my eyes away. There is no let-up in the book either so I felt this production conveyed the visceral pain of Iain Bank's book beautifully.
Lindbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
To October 8, 2013