Based on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
Written by Rona Munro
Directed by Patricia Benecke
Mary Shelley was a revolutionary of science-fiction and gothic horror. Attempting to pay her in kind, Rona Munro brings her usual visionary skills to open a personal chapter to Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Notoriously difficult to adapt, Munro’s desire to examine Shelley’s writing practice, splicing her into the narrative as it unfolds, is an ambitious goal, written very much from the perspective of another creator. Attempting to blend a production of Frankenstein, running alongside pastiche interludes of the creative process, Munro captures the essence of what she intends but fails to deliver wholly.
Visually, Becky Minto’s set design is a grandiose affair, twisted by a gothic flair. White marble, luxurious and decadent, shattered and mapped out as a playground for Shelley’s nightmares. Layering itself, it allows for level play with Patricia Benecke’s cast, tilting needed intimidation towards the audience. Constructed with tight angles, allowing for depth, the set is ensnared by branches, doubling as footholds or kindling for the climactic bonfire. Pale colours work wonders for Grant Anderson’s lighting, which strikes the cold-dead stone, erupting in shades of crimson, cerulean or orange as Shelley’s mind races with ideas.
Focusing on Shelley, thankfully Eilidh Loan makes for a raucous, open and engaging Mary Shelley. Powerful, but fumbling with her ability, there’s a sense of a writer desperately attempting to snare her elusive text. While we don’t receive as much of Shelley’s inspiration as desirable, Loan makes up for this with gusto. It’s a hearty performance, with mirth in her humour, bouncing off her ill-fated ‘hero’ Doctor Frankenstein, who, played by Ben Castle Gibb, is portraying a clean-cut version of the character wonderfully.
The same cannot be said for Shelley’s relationship with the Monster, as Michael Moreland’s take on the patch-work corpse seems off colour. Missing key aspects of the original, Loan still has a teasing nature, elevated by her final line delivery as a creator who achieves their goal, her mad scientist moment, but Moreland never strikes a convincing creature. We feel little sympathy as he longs for a parent, nor terror as his actions speak little when we haven’t invested in the ensemble cast.
Multiple character portrayals are challenging, accomplishing this enables a minimal cast to breathe life into a vast novel. Tragically, a combination of shockingly weak direction, staging and under-rehearsed performances lump characters into an indistinguishable mass. Chiefly, Thierry Mabonga fails to achieve a natural performance, brought to attention when placing him alongside Greg Powrie, whose Master commands a great deal more conviction than Mabonga’s Captain.
So, let’s get to the gritty – despite discussions of terror or horror, Frankenstein is scary in its composite, its ideas and only mildly in imagery or violence. There’s a moral fear rather than that of ghosts and ghoulies, a discomfort with playing god, resurrection and science, and so Munro’s writing thankfully doesn’t lean on frights for effect. Which is a positive, as unfortunately the few instances where an infusion of horror is the case, it comes off with a laugh rather than a shudder. Elizabeth’s death, a pivotal moment in the destruction of Victor, at the hands of the monster, falls to pieces due to mismanaged movement and staging. Moreland and Natali McCleary fail to capture a sense of rhythm, stifling movements. On the whole, Jonnie Riordan’s movement direction feels clunkier than Boris Karloff’s infamous strides, removing any tension the scene should have.
Munro’s resurrection of The Modern Prometheus lacks definitive control, a miss for Munro’s usual canny ability, especially concerning her previous gothic work, the exquisite The Last Witch. Laying her strength into the characterisation of Shelley, Munro achieves a terrifically compelling angle, championed through an engaging, snide performance from Loan – but misses tremendous opportunities. Wishing to delve into Shelley’s origins of the monster, manifestations of her nightmare, Munro fails to grasp Shelley’s history. From the loss of her child to the wager with Lord Byron – the history of Mary Shelley is left to the wayside, forgivable if there was a better focus, but the production is disjointed, neither producing an original Frankenstein, nor compelling story on the mother of Gothic Horror.
Photo Credit – Tommy Ga Ken Wan