It’s been a busy year for old Frankenstein and his monster. This is the third production I’ve seen this year, and there have been a couple more still that I wasn’t able to attend. Mary Shelley’s classic novel celebrated it’s 200th-anniversary last year, so its sudden burst in popularity must be either a coincidence or an intense competition amongst theatre companies. Nevertheless, this adaptation (written by Rona Murno and directed by Patricia Benecke) certainly stands out from the others.
As a story that is wildly reinterpreted every single time it is adapted (be it in film, theatre, radio play, you name it), this reimagining has largely stayed loyal to the narrative of the novel; the madman found running across the arctic, the secret of the escaped monster, the lamentable tale of a being no-one could love. The innovation in Murno’s adaptation is Shelley herself, who is a character as well as a narrator throughout. She interacts with her characters and they interact with her. The duality between her and Dr Frankenstein as they work to create something both groundbreaking and monstrous is an interesting and compelling take.
The problem with it is the characterisation of Mary (played by Eilidh Loan). She’s cocky, swaggering, and dressed like a character from the Matrix. She flip-flops between extremes of exhausting zeal for every detail she writes (“He had dogs! Sled dogs! They’re all dead!”) and indulgent despair as she wrestles with writer’s block. Most frustrating is her attitude towards her characters. To Frankenstein (the mad professor that is) she showers him in admiration and also tortures him with cruel contempt, taking delight in stripping him of everything he loves bit by bit.
To the monster, she is at first fearful, then affectionate. The idea of showing a writer hating and loving their own characters is a fascinatingly psychological one and hints at Murno’s own thought processes while writing, but the character is made so unlikable as a result. Her internal complexity isn’t established beyond her having nightmares of the monster, so her motivation for being so hateful and wound-up by her own work is baffling. It makes you wish she would just put her pen down and have done with the whole ordeal. Comparing the character of Mary to the real-life woman isn't crucial since this is entertainment and we don't come to see it for accuracy. Even so, having a character modelled on Mary Shelley declare “Time passes! Everyone dies!” when her inspiration had just lost a child at that time in her life makes my toes curl. Audiences may not know, but the company do. The only thing stopping this from being considered bad taste is the couple of hundred years it took for audiences to forget.
The disloyal portrayal of Shelley is odd when compared to the stringent loyalty to the novel. The slow and meditative approach to grief and solitude do not lend themselves to the stage. Whenever a character is introduced they are offed in quick succession before the audience has a chance to grow fond of them. Loan rushes every character hither and thither, and it’s difficult not to see Murno and Benecke trying to cram in every detail reflected through her performance. The result is that, in busying through the complex emotional journeys of the characters, they end up shouting at each other a lot just to get as many of their strong feelings across as possible.
Michael Moreland’s performance as the monster takes the biggest hit from this when-in-doubt-make-it-loud approach. Tenderness and tragedy are restored to his character but isn’t reflected in his performance. He spits out lines like “I learned that these were good people, but the world is full of the vicious and the selfish” with gusto, putting to waste the soft, childlike, fairy-tale quality that makes this line so powerful. Not to mention, the whole points of the monster is that he is unbearably ugly. This has to the only show to cast an actor in shadow to hide how ugly he isn’t. The most sincere this performance gets is when Sarah MacGillivray is allowed some space in her performance as Justine. Her limelight is brief but outshines almost everyone else on the stage.
Even amongst the hurry, there are moments of innocent humour that catch you off guard. As Frankenstein contemplates the possibilities of his two horrifying creations reproducing, he moans “children! Oh, it’s too horrible to think of”, to the surprise of his blushing fiancé Elizabeth (Natali McCleary), who is none the wiser about his dillema. They are not too goofy but elevate the performance above its melodrama. The design is tremendous as well; the lighting is dramatic and ghostly, and the set looks like an abandoned mansion frosted over by a snowstorm. It manages to be appropriate for all of the story’s settings, from the arctic sea to Perth.
Truth be told, it’s nice to see something like this performed at Theatre Royal. It takes risks and does something new with the source material, which is what theatre needs even if it is not always successful. Frankenstein has grand intentions, but the muddled execution puts the needs of the story over the growth of the characters. Two stars.
Whispers from the crowd:
“I loved it! I didn’t know what to expect”
“I really liked the weird injections of humour, and Mary’s involvement”