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Frankenstein

by on 20 November 2019

Writer’s Block

Frankenstein

by Rona Monro, adapted from the novel by Mary Shelley

Selladoor Productions in co-production with Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Perth Theatre and Matthew Townshend Productions at Richmond Theatre until 23rd November, then on tour until 7th March

Review by Mark Aspen

The word Frankenstein has become commonplace in the English language; the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a thing that becomes terrifying or destructive to its maker”. However, the word conjures up a wide spectrum of images, from the untidily scarred, bolt-through-the-neck flattop monster of the Boris Karloff Halloween mask, to the metaphorical creature analysed by so many philosophising academics. So what new approach can one make to revitalise this familiar monster of a story?

On press night, The Little Green outside Richmond Theatre was in the throes of the first winter frost and wreathed in mist. Inside the set for Frankenstein was heavy with Arctic “ice” and wreathed in thick fog (the smoke machine does sterling service all evening). So the atmosphere (literal and figurative) was set. Becky Minto’s set is strikingly cold and foreboding, a multileveled series of stone facades, linked by scattered birch trees, dotted with frozen bookcases. Gothic horror touches are added by Grant Anderson’s lighting, cool purple backlights punctuated by silver lightning strokes, while composer Simon Slatter adds in the sound of groaning sheet ice cracking, for true to the novel we start in the Arctic Ocean. Maybe the glassless windows represent Mary Shelley’s stacked stories (storeys of stories?), the story of Walton the captain of the polar exploration ship, the story of Victor Frankenstein, the story of The Creature himself.

So what is the new take that adaptor, Rona Munro brings to Frankenstein? Answer, a new story to add in, that of Mary Shelley herself. Shelley was a maverick, a radical atheist who delighted in kicking over the traces of the times see lived in, the earliest years of the eighteenth century. Munro sees Shelley’s story as hintingly autobiographical. Ironically, in a programme note, Munro says that she has an “aversion to analyses of a writer’s work … as if they gave [us] a clearer idea of what the writer meant to create than [the writer] could ever have had themselves”. This is precisely what Munro has done! She misses the main point of Shelley’s Frankenstein: that it is about what it means to be human. The humanity is expressed through a need of acceptance and of love, and a respect for the precious sanctity of life. All this is lost under a welter of social and political polemics. And it doesn’t work. Director Patricia Beneke, takes up Munro’s proffered cudgels with a vengeance, and indeed picks up the play’s sub-theme of vengeance, and really takes it to town. And we end up with a stuttering, spluttering fragmentation of what could have been a well-told story.

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None of this is helped by some eclectic casting and eclectic accents (to say nothing of some really strange hair-dos). Yes, this is meant to be an all-time and no-time setting, but the references in the text clearly fix Frankenstein in Shelley’s own time. And, yes, the majority of the actors are Scottish, a scene towards the end of the play is set in Perth, and indeed one of the co-production companies is based in Perth. Does this, though, justify forgetting that the play’s protagonists come from Geneva in circa 1800? The credited accent and vocal coach clearly has never been to Geneva.

Eilidh Loan’s Mary Shelly is a sarky estuarine iconoclast, interfering constantly in her creations. Unsympathetic and cynical, she shows no signs of humanity. As Victor Frankenstein’s loved-ones are sequentially killed by the Monster, she screams in delight “Now that is a proper deathbed scene!” Although the concept is to reflect her own creation of Frankenstein the novel in Victor Frankenstein’s creation of the Monster, her distain for him is undisguised. “Such a great hero!” she spits out scornfully. Even the Monster does not escape her biting tongue. “I will look at you… I will understand you”, she superciliously tells him.

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While the rest of the characters are trying to get on with the story, Mary Shelley seems in a different play, a piece of arch metatheatre in which she casually disregards the fourth wall. Consequently, as soon as the action gets into gear, in steps Shelley and stamps on the brake to make yet another sardonic remark. The pace of the play is lost and the action flounders. If she hates her own novel this much, why is she writing it? After ten minutes, Mary Shelley becomes unbearably irritating.

One has the impression that here is a cast of seven very good actors (including Loan) whose chance to act is constantly frustrated by the jerky progression of the play’s action.

Ben Castle Gibb’s Victor Frankenstein is a played as a weak character, always running to catch up with himself, having frenetic bursts of intellectual activity between long periods of mental breakdown. The emotional journey of the slow realisation that playing at being God and creating life is not a good idea is put over well by Castle Gibb. His character’s intellectual arrogance though does seem at odds with cowing to Shelley, his own creator. Constantly on his knees before his black leather clad mistress, he seems to be submitting willingly to some fem-dom ritual.

Michael Moreland imbues the Monster with a sense of emotive depth, but his character lacks the fright-fest factor. When we first see him, he seems like a gravel-voiced aged rock-star whose jeans have shrunk in the wash, blearily trying to shake off a hangover. And why do baddies always have Cockney accents (again one acquired in Vaud)? I speak as an affronted Londoner. But then again, is the Monster a baddy? He is created as a child of innocence, a tabula rasa, in whom abhorrence begets abhorrence and violence begets violence. In him we see the capacity to love and the desire to be loved. Moreland creates a touching moment of understanding with a blind and aged outcast gentleman (beautifully played by Greg Powrie) when finally approaching him in his mountain cottage, where the Monster has long been a stowaway observing the loving nature of the old man’s family. It is an affecting moment until again being shattered by a sarcastic interjection by Shelley.

The non-principal actors double their roles, and Powrie makes a sympathetic Father, the hapless father of Victor and adopted father of Elizabeth, who subsequently falls in love and marries Victor in a fatally short marriage. Natali McCleary creates a powerful portrait of Elizabeth, a character buoyed in the strength of love.

If Frankenstein is a parable about the corruption of innocence, then it is perhaps most sharply focussed in the episode in which the Monster kills Victor’s child brother William, a neat cameo for Thierry Mabonga (uncredited, but he also takes the roles of Captain Walton and of Henry, Victor’s friend from childhood). The Monster frames William’s nurse, Justine, a long-term member of the Frankenstein household, by planting the child’s locket in her cloak. Sarah Macgillivray is true to the role in playing the distraught and confused Justine, whose faithfulness to the family leads to her being coerced into making a false confession. Macgillivray speech at the gallows is achingly affecting as she tries to retract her confession and pleads her innocence. Here is a real person whom Macgillivray brings to life at this point … ironically she is immediately hanged.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein touches on many deeply philosophical themes, the basis of life, the ethical boundaries of scientific research, nature versus nurture, the human need for belonging, the power of love and many associated threads of thought. In this dramatisation, almost none of these are touched on, if only perfunctorily. Instead we get just tangential asides. It is rather like one of those academic treaties that have half a page of footnotes all through, which keep distracting you and you have to re-read each paragraph to get the sense. At least with a book you can cover the bottom of the page.

Munro’s adaptation has Shelley constantly haranguing men, particularly Frankenstein. He is one of “the great men”, she sneers, who “do not own the devastation that they create”. Munro seems to be interpolating feminism as the overarching sub-theme. Maybe it is, but Munro’s point would be better served by cogent arguments rather than just a rant. Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft was of course a very lucid exponent of women’s rights. She died shortly after Mary’s birth, as did the fictional Victor Frankenstein’s mother, and there are many parallels between Mary Shelley’s family life and that of her creation. Her novel was written during a week of dreary weather in Lord Byron’s villa in the hills above Geneva, where a group of friends rose to Byron’s challenge to write a horror story. The teenaged Mary may well have felt daunted competing again literary giants such as Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, her lover whom she was later to marry. But she did win the contest!

Rona Munro is a well-established as a writer whose adaptions for stage and film have gained her wide acclaim, witness her new stage version of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. So there is a sense of anti-climax to this adaptation of Frankenstein, which seems to bear out that OED definition, “a thing that becomes terrifying or destructive to its maker”.

Mark Aspen
November 2019

Photography by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

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