Edinburgh Fringe 2023
The intriguing story of how Frankenstein came into being, told by those who were involved in its creation.
Let’s fess up; I’ve never “got” Frankenstein, never read the book, never seen one of the many film/stage productions, still less given a thought to how it came to be written. Or even who was wrote the thing. So why am I here in the tightly packed Cellar of the Pleasance Courtyard to watch Nick Hennegan’s adaptation of Robert Lloyd George’s The Birth of Frankenstein?
My fault for getting bounced at last week’s meet the media event I guess. Some guy shoved a flyer into my hand and started waxing lyrical about this wonderful experience thingy that was brilliant, brave, all new, etc., etc. Yeah, yeah, that’s what everyone says about their own show. But this guy just went on and on about it so, in the end, I promised to review it just to move him on and let someone else assail my ears with, no doubt, a similar sales pitch.
Look, I know what I like in theatre and like what I know. And this really wasn’t something that fell into that category. Or that’s what I was muttering to myself as I threaded my way through the lunchtime Pleasance crowds on my way for what was sure to be a wasted hour of my life.
Now, that’s the problem with having a closed mind, see. Turns out that The Birth of Frankenstein is an exquisitely written, directed and acted piece of theatre that had me enthralled from start to finish. Staging? Big tick. Sound scape? Ditto. Lighting? Tick. Script/Acting? Massive tick. Overall experience? Brilliant. Closed mind? Opened.
The 16 year old Mary Godwin elopes with her 22 year old lover, Percy Shelley, who’s already married with children but is interested in exploring his own definition of free love. The elopers gallop off to Geneva intent on a summer of hedonism with Lord Byron who suggests, after a good dollop of said hedonism, that they each write a ghost story. Now, we all know that 19th century men wrote all the best stories so why was Mary Godwin bothering at all?
Our story starts at the end, with the tale of how Godwin’s now husband met his death by drowning, his friend John Polidori through too much laudanum and Byron through disease before it dives back into the events that took Mary home to England with the only surviving of the four children she had by Shelley and as the only one of the trio to have written an enduring ghost tale which, after considerable effort, she had published in 1818. Still with me?
It’s a complex story to get across in an hour but the success of Hennegan’s superb adaptation lies in the words. Or, rather, the oft absence thereof. This piece is an object lesson in the use of movement, mime and the too often neglected theatrical pause to tell a story. How Mary’s mother died post childbirth. How Shelly wooed Godwin. Their journey to Geneva. How Byron tried to woo Shelley (both of them). These are but a few examples.
It’s also a pointer in terms of set design. Three white chairs, one white rectangular table, one white hat stand, everyday objects that become beds, boats, carriage and horses and more in the hands of the three actors.
Ah yes, the actors. Teryn Gray (Mary Godwin/Shelley), Jamie Patterson (Percy Shelley) and Callum Pride (Lord Byron) absolutely nailed it, to use a technical theatrical term. Characterisation was expressive (they each played a number of vignettes across the piece). Voices were crystal clear, important given the fast moving narrative. Movement and mime were inventive, keeping things flowing without the need for words.
The script was tight, telling the tale but never afraid to lob in throwaway lines that amused yet still informed. The soundscape, based around original music from Robb Williams was evocative, ethereal even. The lighting, consistently supportive.
This is theatre that comes highly recommended. You don’t need to have an interest in, or knowledge of the subject matter in hand. Just turn up for a masterclass in terms of acting, directing and staging and you’ll absorb the story by osmosis, as I did. So, I’m now off to eat a large slice of humble pie and find the guy who shoved the flyer into my hand. He ended up doing me a massive favour.