Review Frankenstein, New Theatre by Barbara Hughes-Moore

The story behind Frankenstein’s creation is nearly as mythic as the tale itself: eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley, dared by Lord Byron and her husband Percy Bysse Shelley during that fateful summer in Geneva, dreamt of a young scientist staring in horror at the fearful creature he brought into being, and subsequently penned one of the most timelessly influential works of literature.

With countless adaptations of the classic tale over the years, and even more just inspired by it, it’s difficult to envision how a modern interpretation could evoke the same subversive quality as it did in its inception – or even warrant its existence in a sea of Frankenstein reimaginings. To my surprise and delight, this new version, penned by the acclaimed Scottish writer Rona Munro and directed by Patricia Benecke, is a bold and radical reworking that earns its place in the pantheon through ingeniously inserting Mary Shelley into her own story. Although in reality she plotted out her book in great detail, here we get to see Mary think up the book in real time – perhaps not historically accurate, but an innovatively metatextual way of watching the creative process unfold.

As Mary Shelley, Eilidh Loan is a crackling lightning strike of charisma; brash, snarky and devilishly charming, she wields her pen like a magic wand and has the audience in the palm of her hand. I just love the way she takes up space: her Gentleman Jack swagger-and-style (that long black leather coat!) is captivating, her frantic real-time thought-process compelling, and it’s refreshing to see a woman so joyously aware of her own genius. She’s a Regency Fleabag, dragging us through the fourth wall into her world, making snide comments about her own characters and gleefully twirling the strings of their fate like a Romantic-era Deadpool – in many ways, her brazen delight at the gory demise of her cast makes her as bloodthirsty as her own monster.

It’s a quirk that might seem trite in lesser hands, but it makes sense: the women of both Frankenstein and Shelley’s world were pawns, prisoners and victims of patriarchal control and/or male-perpetrated violence, but Mary Shelley was a woman who smashed through the binaries in which society had boxed her – breaking centuries-old societal conventions was just a regular Tuesday for her. So, to set her in the midst of her own story, to give her the reins completely in the telling of her tale, feels like a natural extension of her work and a compelling tribute to such a revolutionary woman – plus, it injects female agency into a story which is (in)famously bereft of it. Sometimes, Mary’s asides slightly dull the dramatic edge of the proceedings – but the characters and plot beats are so familiar that it was refreshing to see them reinvented in a new light. Maybe Mary wouldn’t quite express herself in the way this version of her does, but her fierce rebellious spirit is made of the same stuff.

Loan is so commanding that the other characters in the play often feel just like that: characters, archetypes, shadows of Shelley’s genius mind. This is Mary’s show, and she won’t let you forget it – which, for my money, works, but perhaps that’s because I know and love the novel so much that simply to portray its plot from point A to point B would seem almost too basic at this point. The central conceit, of Mary inviting us into her writing process as she shapes the characters, is experimental enough to risk the cohesion of the tale (which it just about avoids breaking) whilst also speculating as to Mary’s thoughts and motivations in writing it. It’s a meta deconstruction of Frankenstein as much as an adaptation of it, and the original framing device reanimates a well-worn story into something fresh and unpredictable.

Despite Mary’s dominance, the ensemble is brimming with talent and carry the story with ease. In a shocking turn of events, I found Victor more sympathetic here and the creature less; Ben Castle Gibb’s interpretation of Dr F is rather heart-breaking, even if the love story between he and Natali McCleary’s Elizabeth never quite convinces (it doesn’t work for me in the novel either, to be fair). Michael Moreland’s ‘Monster’ (as he is credited here) is effectively animalistic in his performance, although doesn’t appear as overtly monstrous as the characters’ reactions might suggest. His monster is less elegantly eloquent as his on-page counterpart, but he excellently delivers the play’s best line (which, to my recollection, isn’t in the original): ‘despair was the first gift you ever gave me’.

The rest of the cast is energetic and gamely inhabit Frankenstein’s sprawling character list. Thierry Mabonga is tasked with the most variable cross-section of roles, playing Victor’s hyper younger brother William, his genial bestie Henry Clerval, and (a particularly imposing incarnation of) Captain Walton. As Victor’s long-suffering fiancée Elizabeth, Natali McCleary is saddled with one of the novel’s least meaty roles yet still infuses the character with kindness and charm; however, she shines particularly as Safie, a Muslim woman who leaves home in pursuit of true love, and whose newfound family is spied on by the creature from afar. Greg Powrie and Sarah MacGillivray convince as the domestic parade of paternal/maternal figures who influence Victor and the creature, even if their multiple roles are rather thankless.

In a play that so unabashedly celebrates a woman’s accomplishments, it’s wonderful to see so many women in key roles in the creative team. Munro’s script is sharp, witty and inventive – she also wrote the compelling Rebus: Long Shadows which I reviewed for Get the Chance earlier this year – and Benecke’s dynamic direction ensures the story whips by at breakneck pace. But it’s the production design that makes the show truly unmissable: Becky Minto (who also designed the costumes!) has crafted a, spectacular, visually stunning and gorgeously symbolic set which doubles as an abandoned stately home, an Arctic-bound ship, and the internal tapestry of Mary’s mind all in one. The set is skeletal, adorned with spindly trees that variously evoke spines, vines, and veins – and which, in a delightfully inventive novelty, the actors climb as the action moves between the two tiers. The gorgeously Gothic atmosphere is augmented by Grant Anderson’s effectively-Frankenstinian lighting and Simon Slater’s eerie music/sound design.

Some reviewers suggest that the play emphasises the ‘morality tale about unfettered science’ angle of the text at the expense of its contemplation on moral responsibility, but I beg to differ. From where I was sitting, the play focuses almost entirely on the latter whilst throwing the scientific cautionary tale out the window – and is all the better for it. After all, we never learn the exact workings of Victor’s reanimation process, and the condemnation of him playing God or mistreating his ‘patient’ relates to the larger themes of humanity’s shared responsibility in the creation of monsters. Munro herself interprets Frankenstein not as a cautionary tale about unchecked science, but rather about inequality – an interpretation I really feel gets to the heart of the story.

Of the monster’s two creators, Mary is the more attentive and empathetic to the being for whose existence she is responsible; she listens to his story, touches him with kindness, and talks to him like a human being. Mary’s rage at the ‘great men’ who abuse their authority is powerfully tinged in shades of #MeToo – but the script leaves enough room for nuance and ambiguity that lends itself to multiple readings, not least Mary’s implied anger at her distant father William Godwin, who easily meets the requirements of the ‘great men’ she condemns. The real monstrous act is failing to take responsibility for the things you create – indeed; to renege on that responsibility is particularly heinous when one has the privilege, means and status that others lack. Victor does not only fail as a father and as a scientist, but as a human being.

This new version of Frankenstein is a refreshingly creative take on a familiar tale. It’s meta approach to the Gothic makes it feel like a mashup of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Young Frankenstein (I can give no higher praise). As Mary Shelley surmises near the play’s close, ‘vengeance is a monster’; perhaps here, the very novel Mary crafts is her last (or first?) act of vengeance against the myriad foes who have wronged her. This may be just the latest in a litany of adaptations of Shelley’s genre-defining masterpiece, but it’s also an invigorating take on the source material that demands to be seen – and it’s just the thing to get you in the spooky mood this Halloween week. Frankenstein is playing at the New Theatre through Saturday 2nd November.

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