Saturday, 12 October 2019

THEATRE REVIEW: Frankenstein - The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry.

It’s fascinating when visiting a new venue for the first time to listen to those around and see what useful snippets may be gleaned from overheard conversations. Apparently Frankenstein is a GCSE set-text this year, something I never would have guessed given the almost complete absence of teenagers from the audience. There was quite a bit of admiration for Becky Minto’s stark grey set with one regular offering “that’s remarkably grand for B2” – B2 being the smaller of the two spaces at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre.

Frankenstein has been subjected to several theatrical and film adaptations over the years, but Rona Munro (Bold Girls, Iron) innovates by basing her retelling of the tale on the true story of how Mary Shelley, aged all of eighteen years, entered a literary competition with her husband and a friend. Struggling for inspiration, she had a vivid nightmare which formed the basis of what Brian Aldiss described as “the first true science fiction novel”.

We are immersed in this nightmare, and in Mary Shelley’s thought processes, as she by turns interacts with the characters and then stands back to watch and see what they do. Eilidh Loan (Doctors, England’s Forgotten Queen) brings Mary to life with a frenetic, occasionally bordering on manic, performance. It is Mary’s show, a fact reinforced by her red blouse which is the only colourful item on stage.

The result is something of a deconstruction of the Frankenstein story which took several members of the audience by surprise. It does mean that Mary telegraphs much of what is to befall her characters in advance, but perhaps that isn’t such a problem in a story as well-known as this.

Grant Anderson’s lighting design is intelligent and creative; I particularly liked the fibre-optic cables used to energise Michael Moreland’s Monster. Moreland’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s creation is powerful and at times genuinely heart-rending; it is also intense in its physicality and makes full use of the set.

After the interval things speed up even more as Mary seems to revel in the power she has over her characters, delighting particularly in the suffering of Frankenstein whom she obviously dislikes. As one disaster after another overtakes the poor Doctor, Ben Castle-Gibb’s performance becomes more visceral; he is overwhelmed with terror to the point where his mental state unravels completely.

There are times in this second half where the action feels a little too fast-paced; the audience barely has time to take in one horror before the next one comes along. Mary becomes a bit shrill in places and I’m not sure her catty asides add an awful lot to our understanding of the unfolding tragedy. That said, the conclusion, when it comes, is handled with poignant sensitivity.

It’s remarkable that over two centuries have passed since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as so many of the themes – obsession, the ethical use of technology, a yearning to belong and to be loved – are hugely pertinent to our 21st century lives. Many (male) critics have suggested, without real justification, that much of the novel was in fact the work of Percy Shelley but Rona Munro clearly disagrees, giving Mary the last word as she launches her Monster into the future: “I did this. These are MY words”.

This is a very intelligent, high-intensity piece which demands a lot of its cast of just seven and it was quite rightly very warmly applauded by the sold-out house in Coventry.

October is the “right time of year” for a bit of Gothic horror but Sellador Productions’ Frankenstein is just a few weeks into a six-month tour. 

Reviewer - Ian Simpson
on - 11/10/19

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