Reviewed – 18th November 2019
“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
Previously reviewed at this venue: