Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

 

21/10/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Frankenstein is an integral part of our cultural landscape, its imagery known to all, even those who’ve never read the book or seen a movie version of the tale. I love it, but it’s been adapted and interpreted so many times that I’m almost reluctant to see it again. What else is there to say? Playwright Rona Munro had the same misgivings: ‘What version of Frankenstein hadn’t I seen already?’

Her conclusion – a version that places a punky teenage Shelley (Eilidh Loan) on stage with her creations – is inspired, extending the duality so central to the novel. For who is Mary if not Victor Frankenstein (Ben Castle-Gibb)? Is she not the creature’s maker, alongside the young scientist? All the hubris Frankenstein displays (the frenetic, obsession with his work; the rejection of accepted norms; the willingness to unleash horror to realise his dreams) is Mary’s conceit too. And if the monster (Michael Moreland) represents the darkness in the doctor’s soul, he surely also embodies the destructive nature of the writer who conceived them both.

In a weird way, the horror is both negated and amplified by Shelley’s presence: we always know it’s a fiction, each death or salvation dependent on a scribble from a pencil pulled impatiently from the writer’s hair – and yet, as we’re reminded, this monster really lives; he is immortal, long outlasting both of his creators.

Becky Minto’s design is gorgeously stylised, all stark and glacial, with bare white roots and branches used to hint at wires, hearts and veins. The monotone costumes add to the abstraction; there’s a suggestion of the period, but no attempt at naturalistic portrayal. Patricia Benecke’s direction makes clear that this is an exploration of the novel’s heart, not a faithful retelling of the story as it stands.

Occasionally it feels a little rushed; the scene where the creature meets the old man (Greg Powrie) suffers particularly in this respect. And Natalie McCleary (who plays Elizabeth) feels a little under-used: she has a strong stage presence and her character could easily be given more to do. The only other issue for me is the excessive use of dry ice. It’s one thing to create a misty, creepy atmosphere, but come on… It’s October; half of the audience are struggling with colds. It doesn’t seem sensible to tickle our throats to this extent.

Despite these minor niggles, I’m really impressed by this play. Munro’s quirky adaptation exposes and illuminates ideas I hadn’t thought of in a story I thought I knew too well.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula

30/10/18

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

What better way to commemorate the night before Hallowe’en than with this production, which offers enough blood, mayhem and diabolical carrying-on to satisfy the darkest of appetites? Published in 1897, Bram Stoker’s tale of repressed Victorian sexuality forms one of the cornerstones of Gothic horror fiction, along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published eighty years earlier in 1818.

Of course, the main difficulty for anyone undertaking Dracula in this day and age is that the story is so familiar to audiences around the world, it is virtually impossible to create any sense of surprise. To give this production its due, it doesn’t really try to do that, offering a fairly close interpretation of Stoker’s original tale – unless, of course, we count the addition of a Lady Renfield (Cheryl Campbell) and a silver bullet trope that appears to have been borrowed from the werewolf tradition, which, the more I think about it, doesn’t really make an awful lot of sense. Plans I might have had to incorporate a ‘fangs ain’t what they used to be’ byline are, I’m afraid, somewhat redundant. Still, I’ve little doubt that Stoker would have approved of this interpretation of his most celebrated story.

Mina Murray (Olivia Swann) bids a fond farewell to her fiancé, solicitor Jonathan Harker (Andrew Horton), as he sets off to Transylvania to organise the impending relocation to Whitby of a certain Count Dracula (Glen Fox). Harker promptly goes missing and, while he’s away, Mina’s friend, Lucy (Jessica Webber), begins to exhibit some rather worrying symptoms. Why is she sleepwalking every night? And what are those peculiar marks on her neck? It’s not until Mina has travelled to Europe to collect an emotionally drained Jonathan that his journal explains what he has been up to – and it is clearly time to call in Professor Van Helsing (Philip Bretherton), who has previous experience of this kind of thing.

If Jenny King’s adaptation sometimes feels a little stilted, it’s Ben Cracknell’s galvanic lighting design that offers us most in the way of surprises, with jolting flashes of light revealing fleeting glimpses of carnage before we are plunged abruptly back into darkness. Illusionist Ben Hart throws in some impressive disappearing tricks, director Eduard Lewis supplies some eerie choreography, and Sean Cavanagh’s  clever set design manages to transform the stage of the King’s Theatre into a series of suitably atmospheric locations. It’s an ensemble piece, of course, but Jessica Webber gives a particularly assured portrayal of Lucy, sprightly and coltish in her earlier scenes and horribly transformed later on.

This is a decent, if not exactly transformative production, perfectly suitable for the Hallowe’en season, and with scenes that may unnerve some viewers.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Mary Shelley

09/07/18

It’s one of the most fascinating stories in the history of literature – how an eighteen year old girl, albeit the daughter of two respected writers and the partner of an acclaimed poet, managed to create one of the most seminal novels of all time – a book that has never been out of print since its release in 1818, one that has been filmed and staged countless times… and a book, moreover, that is a brilliant metaphor for womankind’s lot in the male-dominated society of the period.

Here, Mary is played by Elle Fanning, doing that sleepy-eyed, sulky thing she does so perfectly, while the role of Percy Bysshe Shelley is played by Douglas Booth. Indeed, at times, it’s hard to decide which one of them is the most photogenic. When we first encounter Mary, she’s sixteen years old, living with her father, the bookseller William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her argumentative stepmother, Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggat), and her stepsister, Claire (Bel Powley). Mary is obsessed with reading Gothic horror stories and is already making her first tentative attempts at writing fiction but, as her father tells her, she needs to stop imitating others and ‘find her own voice.’

On a rare visit to one of her cousins in Scotland, she encounters the handsome Percy Shelley and there’s an instant attraction between them. Summoned back to London because of Claire’s fictional ‘illness’, Mary is astonished when Percy turns up at her father’s bookshop, having enlisted William as his patron. It’s only a matter of time before Mary and Percy are in the throes of a full-blown romance. It’s not all plain sailing though. For one thing, there’s the fact that Percy already has a wife and daughter, a little detail that he has completely neglected to mention. But Mary manages to put her doubts aside. She’s smitten.

And then, to the complete disgust of polite society, the two lovers decide to run away together, taking Claire along for the ride. The three of them live a dissolute existence, struggling to make money and frittering away whatever they earn on alcohol and extravagant parties. Percy believes in free love and it isn’t long before, much to Mary’s dismay,  he’s drawing Claire into his amorous clutches. Then, the trio find themselves invited by Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge) to stay at his villa in Switzerland, where he and his personal physician, Dr John Polidori (Ben Hardy), are currently holidaying – and where all the elements are in place for the creation of a Gothic masterpiece.

Haifaa al Monsour’s film sticks fairly closely to the facts and, despite the odd contemporary-sounding phrase, Emma Jensen’s screenplay easily manages to hold the attention. If Shelley comes across as a privileged idiot, he’s totally eclipsed by Byron, who, as portrayed by Sturridge, is easily the most slappable person in nineteenth century Europe, prone to making vile utterances about the superiority of men and engaging in macho posturing. Indeed, amongst the young male characters, only Polidori emerges as genuinely decent, though the treatment he experiences at the hands of the two poets might give him good cause to be surly.

This is a good movie, handsomely staged and capably directed. It may be the first time that the extraordinary nature of Mary’s achievement has been fully realised onscreen. If the film is a little short on fireworks, it’s nonetheless offers a fascinating insight into the scandalous events that surrounded the creation of Frankenstein.

4 stars

Philip Caveney