Brighton Year-Round 2019
Patricia Benecke directs, Becky Minto designs the set, lit by Grant Anderson with Simon Slater’s composition and sound design. Jonnie Riordan’s movement director and wardrobe supervisor’s Louise Robertson. Ros Steen is accent and vocal coach and Lu Kemp, dramaturg. Till October 19th then touring.
Because ‘Above all else, I hope this play terrifies you. That’s its job.’ Rona Munro’s playful way with injecting more terror into Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein might almost undermine her project. When you see Shelley as narrator proclaim wryly at the end of Act One: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? I’ll change that’ you wonder what Act Two can possibly add. Rewind in fact. A monster calls.
But who’s the monster? Munro’s real project is to ‘put Mary, visible and potent, in the centre of the story as the skilled writer she was.’ And as a writer, not a suffering wronged woman. This isn’t an obvious ambition as Shelley herself used male narrators as Gothic convention impels.
So Munro distances the terror straight off by having hyper-active Eilidh Loan as Shelley leap up and down the set, sidle up and subject Michael Moreland’s Monster to verbal fisticuffs, cajole Ben Castle Gibb’s Frankenstein with amorous flattery and curt disgust. Both males must feel monstered in Shelley’s long shadow. And as Munro places in Shelley’s mouth, this is science fiction as well as horror, not just gothic. Shelley invented both genres.
Munro’s capacity to reinvent and theatricalise when she adapts reminds us of her powers as an original dramatist, not least her James Plays. Here, she strongly recalls them: Munro’s more exuberant than in her adaptation of (for instance) Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It feels far more like a Munro play.
That said, there’s a hero too. Patricia Benecke directs with agility, but it’s Becky Minto’s set that stars, an angled interior library with tall windows evoking neo-classical exteriors whilst below various bookshelves, all in the same dove grey, get obscured by puffs of dry ice. With places to leap up and down, a balcony and windows, with a frosted side entrance where shapes ghost up, it’s a flexible space that might have been pushed even further.
As it is it’s lit evocatively by Grant Anderson, and the place thrubs with Simon Slater’s composition and occasionally explosive sound design. Jonnie Riordan’s the movement director and wardrobe supervisor’s Louise Robertson, particularly modelling natty long leather coats, not least Shelley’s. Ros Steen is accent and vocal coach and Lu Kemp, dramaturg.
Loan struts and sweeps around her creations, commenting repeating cues and as it were galvanizes them with bolts of verbal electricity. It’s certainly the writer’s version, this Shelley aware at the moment of making, scratching out possible endings, letting the darkness further in, and telling Frankenstein in particular that it’s going to get a lot darker. Or other characters that they’ve dared to love and there’s nothing else. There’s a beat of empathy for the doomed.
We start authentically enough with Thierry Mabonga’s questing Captain Walton and his reluctant Master Greg Powrie (both multi-role) up in the balcony of a running figure. They pick up Gibb’s Frankenstein and we rewind the tale.
First happy families, something Munro establishes mainly to blow it to pieces. Powrie and Mabonga are Father and best friend Henry, and we’re introduced to Sarah Maggillivray’s Mother and doomed servant Justine, and Natali Mccleary’s Elizabeth.
Gibb’s self-obsessed young man surpassing his freethinking tutor Waldman (Powrie again) impresses with how far he can run with glistening cables, but not as a man. Munro’s pretty angry with him through Shelley, though acknowledging his greatness as a flawed thing. The Monster’s evocation is truncated; a sudden appearance and recoil sets Moreland on his destructive revenge. Indeed vengeance is a key conclusion Munro’s Shelley comes to.
The second act does give more backstory to the Monster’s emergence into words, the notion of love in watching a family from afar; understanding loss then wreaking the story we all know. Though much emphasis is given to Frankenstein’s quest to fulfill his bargain and create a woman for his Monster, he never manages it here. Like the striving to create Monster I, the elision of Monster II in a very short adaptation loses us some vital opportunity to gain a bit of depth.
They’re a hardworking mainly young ensemble. Munro’s post-modernist way with narrative distances the characters still further, giving actors little purchase to bite with an impression. Loan gets most opportunity, and slightly more rounded than the nominal characters, delivers with humour, panache and vehemence, only occasionally hectoring up a notch.
Gibb is offered less with a somewhat unhinged obsessive: first it’s ‘don’t bother me’ then remorsefully ‘leave me to die’. Gibb tousles his best with it. Curiously Moreland, the only actor not sounding Scottish but RP (thus foreign to original Scottish audiences), is given more opportunity to run with a gamut of wonder, rage, desolation and ferocious resolve. He literally leaps at it. The finest exchanges are with him and Loan, or Loan and a fractured silent Gibb flinching from her; or thrillingly Gibb and Moreland in a final scene.
Mabonga lends Henry a spark of nobility and patience, McCleary’s Elizabeth strikes the right ardent flash after the kind of warm forbearance Shelley herself called too much on. Maggillivray edges the wronged Justine with terror and a piteous resolve. Powrie scores particularly in differentiating the indulgent Father, pragmatic Master and free-thinking Waldman brought up short by his own pupil.
Munro seems to draw to a close, then adds something. Then again. It’s as if she can’t bear to wave the tale goodbye. So we’re subjected to more of Munro’s deliciously pointed commentary that ether quotes directly or has little to do with the novel. Who cares? It’s bracing. We’re thrilled but not terrified though with this ensemble. Perhaps a slower rounded approach might yield more depth. But it might endanger this very airborne script, which needs a touch more dimension. And it has room.
This is the opposite to formulaic adaptations of novels we’ve seen paraded before now. And it’s virtually a Munro play. There are more humane, more terrible and deeper interpretations of the story though. And though it’s salutary and an act of homage to reinvent Shelley, Shelley herself might have preferred her characters to live.
Still Shelley as writer bestriding her magnificent set is something to take away. And for Munro, this is only the first Shelley novel. Adapting her The Last Man would be something. There’s a clean sharp fusion between these two writers that heralds something special.