“This production does breathe new life into Mary Shelley’s story with its inventiveness, but it perilously runs the risk of killing it too”
What’s the name of Mary Shelley’s monster? ‘Frankenstein’ is the unanimous response. Wrong! Shelley never ascribed a name to the creature created by Victor Frankenstein, the scientist who meddles with nature. Although in Rona Munro’s stage adaptation the misnomer is given an extra twist as Munro places Shelley herself into the action. It is an interesting framing device that mirrors the story’s concerns: Shelley has created her own monster which, now set unleashed into the world, is beyond her control.
Eilidh Loan, as the young eighteen-year-old writer, is a feral creature herself with a lacerating energy, scratching words onto her pages as the tale unfolds around her. She is the writer, and the director, of her characters as she prompts and taunts, and is never kind to them. But there lies part of the problem – her grating Cockney detachment strips the drama of its sense of tragedy and sadness. You rather miss, too, the presence of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley. It seems a shame to ignore the real-life story behind the conception of the dark tale, which is almost as famous as the novel itself. Maybe Munro’s intention was that we, the audience, were the ones cooped up with Mary in the chalet on Lake Geneva. Loan frequently spoke out to the auditorium as though she were being challenged to come up with her own terrifying tale. But lines like “Is it frightening enough?” or “It’s my nightmare” are too simplistic to realise the effect.
Although the stilted characterisation and dialogue dampen the atmosphere, it is more than compensated for in Patricia Benecke’s foreboding staging. Becky Minto’s icy set of balconies and bare trees like withered lungs suggest the dread and despair, punctuated by Simon Slater’s bolts of sound that feed the melodrama. At times, though, the cast are forced to try to outdo the setting with occasional overdramatic delivery. Ben Castle Gibb, as Victor Frankenstein, is the most successful at avoiding this with a manic performance that captures the extremes of obsession without drumming home the point. Michael Moreland’s Monster bizarrely speaks like Kathy Burke’s own monstrous creations; Kevin and Perry, which doesn’t help lift him out of the cartoon like portrayal Munro has written for him, and the other characters.
Sprinklings of feminist anachronisms and modern-day analogies to ethnic intolerance, fear and prejudice border on patronising and melt the glacial force of Shelley’s original. Trying to balance the entertainment value with a subliminal sermon is unnecessary and it dilutes the power. This production does breathe new life into Mary Shelley’s story with its inventiveness, but it perilously runs the risk of killing it too.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Richmond Theatre until 23rd November then UK tour continues
“It isn’t easy to produce a well loved story without either offending it’s fans or sliding into a boring retelling, and this play avoids both”
Some things in life are a given. There aren’t many I grant you, but one of them is that if it involves Mary Shelley I will be there! Frankenstein is one of my favourite books, first read in my mid-teens from a very Gothic looking, battered leather bound edition from nineteen twenty something bought for pennies at a jumble sale. This says so much about the teenager I was and the literary road it placed me on.
Strangely enough years later I made a friend who had pretty much the same experience in her younger years and together as adults we have probably seen and discussed this one story more than can ever be considered normal! So no prizes for guessing that I did NOT attend this production of Frankenstein alone! I wouldn’t have dreamed of it!
So together, we two Mary Shelley groupies, entered the intimate room that is Brockley Jack Theatre and sat pretty much ON the stage, torn between anticipation and fear of disappointment. The smoke machine built up a silent eerie mist and the lights flickered and dimmed slowly…
The play tells us three tales simultaneously: From the very beginning of the story, the fictional epic that is of creator building upon the idea of forming life. From the middle of the novel, the created and abandoned creature hunting for meaning and acceptance and also the biographical story of Mary Shelley herself.
The symbiotic relationship of Victor Frankenstein (Christopher Tester) and the Creature (Will Pinchin) is acted beautifully, with the young experimenter’s foray into early scientific discovery delivering a clear, slow slide into obsession, whilst his naive, maligned and confused creation grows in intelligence, despair, loneliness and anger.
Shelley’s suggestions that it’s the losses in Frankenstein’s life that drive his need to control death are evident throughout the script, and Ross McGregor has adapted the novel onto the stage amazingly well. It remains true to the original, explores what is known of the author’s life, and manages to scatter a good dose of observational laughs throughout.
Although the fiction aspect of the play runs scenes from both the first half of the story and the second half alongside each other (sometimes via alternating scenes and sometimes with both stories on stage at the same time), the story progression remains clear, if not chronological, and engages the audience in rethinking the play rather than just observing it.
The third narrative woven through this criss-crossing platform is that of the novelist herself. Her story is also told across two eras; following her life as it is drawing to it’s end and intermittently as she meets Percy Shelley for the first time and embarks on her life with him.
Cornelia Baumann is wonderful in her portrayal of all aspects of a life full of challenges and tragedies without confusing the audience as to which particular aspect of Mary Shelley’s life is unfolding on stage. I like the way this play draws on the parallels between her and her characters. It makes you wonder if, a hundred years before psychoanalysis began, this woman wrote out her own self analysis deliberately or unintentionally, and whether it helped her in any way to cope.
The rest of the talented cast (Oliver Brassell, Zoe Dales, Victoria Llewellyn, Phillip Ridout and Beatrice Vincent) each take on multiple roles that are essential to the story. Making every character different with minimal, but very Steampunk inspired, costume changes. Added to that, a beautifully designed yet simple set (Maisey Corie) and atmospheric lighting (Guy Lewis) and you have a visual treat.
It isn’t easy to produce a well loved story without either offending it’s fans or sliding into a boring retelling, and this play avoids both. Arrows & Traps Theatre Company didn’t disappoint.
I’ll leave you with my equally fanatical Shelley buddy’s verdict: ‘It will stay in my mind for a long time’
Reviewed by Joanna Hinson
Photography by Davor Tovarlaza
is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 21st October