The Monstrous Heart – Traverse Theatre

Written by Oliver Emanuel

Directed by Gareth Nicholls

Choking, claustrophobic, Mag’s cabin exists in an idyllic retreat many would desire, but others would suffocate within its freedom. Where the subject of nature vs. nurture arises, the concept of a monstrous mother is by no means recent. Oliver Emanuel’s The Monstrous Heart entwines nature so integrally with the narrative, as a force offering redemption for one, yet suffocation for another, that the brutal interruption of Mag’s daughter Beth only spells chaos.

A definitive stick of dynamite, Christine Entwisle spends a decent portion in, somewhat, of a controlled state, ready to blow. Cowed and beleaguered, despite her rejection of daughter Beth, we sympathise to an extent. Far from simpering, there’s a hint of a stoic woman who has perhaps been lost, or as it would seem, is merely hibernating…

Without an ounce of shame, Charlene Boyd’s self-destructive Beth is just as enrapturing to watch, as she is repulsive in manner. Gareth Nicholl’s direction, evidently liberating, pits Charlene Boyd against Entwisle in a compelling fashion. Boyd’s brazenness unhinged but articulate is troubling – but in actuality, she’s cobbled her pieces back together to seek answers, or perhaps vengeance. Thus far, we stick to the plains of reality – these are the squabbles which place themselves firmly in verism. That is of course until a certain bronze-coloured beverage knocks Mag’s off her wagon – here, straying into overwrought abstract, nature has a force to awaken within this mother.

We have, however, failed to address the Elephant Bear in the room. Lifesize, designed to perfection by Cécile Trémolières, it’s presence is of debate among the characters, but its symbolism goes far beyond mere spectacle. Voice-over work in the theatre is rarely a discussion, but Tanya Moodie’s voiceover for the bear, nature, however you wish to interpret, is driven with guttural passion.

With the pace of an extraordinarily slow badger watch, The Monstrous Heart has the grim appeal of a car crash, but in a hyper-slow motion. Refusing to look away, knowing that there is some form of carnage awaiting, but you know that you should. As layer upon layer is cut away, peeling itself to reveal a gruesome secret, Emanuel’s writing steadily evolves but takes too long to get there, dragging out this family-reunion in the wrong places, burning the candle a too vigorously, then snuffing out the progression it illuminates.

What little lighting is utilised, is effective as a conveyer of emotional turmoil, or the bleakness of the mountain’s chill. Gradually dipping, a storm hailing beyond the door, sunlight fading out from the cabin. So subtle, yet effective, a shiver creeps up, taking us by surprise. At its most effective, as the door holds open, a thin blanket of snow covers the floor. The fading light all but gone, briefly illumined by the dying glow, it’s a final image which sums up the production in a chilling way.

Mother knows best, or at least, they often think they do. Emanuel’s production captures the ferocity of a mother-daughter relationship, dialling the emotional instability to the maximum. An argument centres on whether evil is born, or manifested, stems back to, well, as soon as we were able to articulate the question. As the piece’s referential homage to Shelley’s Frankenstein asks: are monsters born, made or is the creator, the parent, the true monster? The Monstrous Heart asks tough questions, tackles a monstrous mother, her twisted daughter, and cackles in the face of beauty.

Runs at The Traverse Theatre until November 2nd. Tickets available from: https://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event/the-monstrous-heart

Photo credit – Mihaela Bodlovic

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