Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

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

Solaris – The Lyceum, Edinburgh

Written by David Greig

Adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel

Directed by Matthew Lutton

Runs at The Royal Lyceum Theatre until October 5th

A living planet. Capable of rational thought, movement and decision. Universal discovery of a lifetime – or idealist lie to further one’s understanding of the unknown? David Greig’s Solaris adapts itself from the original 1968 novel by Stanislaw Lem, also borrowing, but standing apart from the 1972 cinematic masterpiece from Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. 

Examining the response to extraterrestrial life, a reflective piece on human isolation, David Greig’s (thankfully) gender-balanced cast stands aboard a spacecraft orbiting the titular Solaris. A planet of an endless ocean – yet there’s more. Solaris, perhaps unkindly, offers the crew gifts. Tokens at first, which distort themselves into something all too familiar. Recognisable phantoms sooner best forgotten, past loves and children. As the natures of scientific rigour fight against human desire, the crew find themselves sharing emotional vulnerability.

There isn’t a single scene which does not deserve to be captured, framed and proudly put on display. Hyemi Shin’s design captivates our attention from the opening. Furthering a cinematic motif, the tri-colour palette ebbs and hues across the distinctly clinical aesthetic. Monumentally triumphant, stage management must pride themselves in the seamless workings of Solaris. Capitalising on the cinematic ‘cuts’ over a traditional black-out, the pace of transition is impressive – holding off a tiring of the effect. 

This tantalising setting, through Matthew Lutton’s direction, divides itself through a richly rewarding make-up of staging and cinematic projection. With fewer gimmickry intentions than one may principally suspect, it’s in truth minimal in reliance on effects which do not overshadow stellar performances.

Chiefly that of Polly Frame, taking the role of psychologist Kris Kelvin. Her presence is accessible, easing audience preconceptions as they wrap their heads around the jargonish plot threads. Indeed, both Fode Simbo and Jade Ogugua’s doctors Snow and Sartorius bring different elements of morality to the concepts of ‘othering’ the vistor. Genuine, welcoming and offering levity – Simbo acts against the deteriorating sanity of Frame, maintaining a distinct element of that most dangerous trait: curiosity.

Gracing us through the medium of VHS is Hugo Weaving, who matches expectations – excelling those of a pre-recorded segment. His presence isn’t leant upon, his scenes an enhancing addition of flavourful exposition, without the reliance of heavy description.

Space encompasses the inevitability of isolation, the avoidance of one’s self-realisation, is futile. Greig takes a bold move in what he shapes from the original novel, honing the defiance in being alone, as the planet manifesting itself in human form. Psychologist Kris rips herself between the realms of human connection and scientific standards, drawn to the personification of her loneliness in Ray (Keegan Joyce). An energetic, attractive man from her past, a ghost of regret. In chasing this idealistic fantasy, Kris traps herself further in an addictive pursuit of false satisfaction.

Horror lurks principally in a tranquil yet unnerving underlying score, composed by sound designer Jethro Woodward. Straying from this psychological terror, a fear persists of allowing an excessive negative air to hang over Solaris. Humour is punchy, often natural, but permeates frequently, exceeding dread.

An infusion of stage and screen, David Greig champions sci-fi in a manner theatre rarely carries off. As alien as the narrative may reside, it couldn’t be further from human in construct. With a distinct beauty in design, both aural and visual, Solaris is a pinnacle of theatrical science fiction, and while it shy’s from the genre’s depths of horror, it redeems itself with a prevalent atmosphere.

Tickets available from The Lyceum:

Production Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic

Dr. Moreau Explains – Assembly Roxy

Original Novel by H.G. Wells

Adapted by Michael Daviot

Directed by Emily Ingram

For the many that are familiar with the monstrous creations found within H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau then Dr Moreau ExplainsMichael Daviot’s part-adaptation of the 1896 novel, will not disappoint. Dr Moreau, an expert vivisectionist, finds himself answering the questions of biologist Edie Prendick. In a twist from the source, the action does not take place during the book, instead we see beyond the covers. Building upon the notion of Prendick’s account of the brutality she (in a gender-swapped role) bore witness too, and seeking answers from Dr Moreau via video link. As Moreau is trapped by the very Beast Folk he creates, he offers a final explanation of his deeds and a ‘lesson’ to Prendick.

Fresh off the coattails of a rather spiffing run as Sherlock Holmes, Twisted Thistle are continuing a trend involved in much of Daviot’s career. He refuses to allow the pages of a story to go untouched, seeking a way to reignite, revitalise and re-imagine its contents. His previous works contain an intense adoration for Gothic horror, narrative, and elements of sci-fi or fantasy and this all works in tremendous favour for Dr Moreau Explains, especially Daviot’s uncanny ability to take a preexisting tale and somehow spin it into an entirely distinct form.

Well’s original novel is far from a perfectly pleasant experience, though what else would you expect? A sublime piece of early science-fiction, it is one of the first instances of ‘uplifting’ – drawing animal companions onto the same evolutionary lineage as humans. It deals with human identity, pain, scientific suffering and moral responsibilities. Dr Moreau Explains, knowing full well to respect the source material, remains unchanged. That said, Daviot’s clever scripting includes the odd choice phrase or propaganda satire which hints at the passing time since the novel’s first publication.

Aesthetically Dr Moreau Explains is able to pull the story into a contemporary setting however its hints at a steampunk aesthetic are only present in the cogs and windings of the buffering ‘live broadcast’. Roddy Simpson’s design for the video operation is remarkable in terms of quality for the scale and time to accomplish.

Daviot’s performance, under Emily Ingram’s direction, is the highlight of the production. The sheer ferocity in delivery showcases an entire spectrum of emotion that thunders out into the audience. That is not to say we do not have the stillness of emotional weight. One smarter aspect of the ‘live video’ aesthetic is that it ingeniously sets up some of the quieter moments. Frozen frames and buffering video means the audience shift their entire focus to Daviot – and it is here where he capitalises on the break in momentum, holding us on his every word.

Similarly to Moreau’s infamous ‘Puma-Woman’, this production has elements requiring completion. The components are there, some deftly incorporated, others require a tight pull on the stitching. The concept is sound, but it needs more fleshy sinew. Daviot and Ingram are compelling in their performance, but there is less of an association between Ingram and Daviot’s characters as we would hope for. With the use of video footage, Ingram is unable to stand against the torrent of Dr Moreau’s confessions. While she has tremendous expression, delivery, and her epilogue closing out the piece is fitting for the original novel; there’s also a restriction in what emotions can be on the show. She cannot interrupt Moreau, nor can she directly engage. While it makes for a commanding stage presence for Daviot, it regrettably means Ingram plays second-fiddle.

In its closing moments, the realisation of what Dr Moreau Explains has the potential to evolve into is inspiring. The regenerative powers Twisted Thistle are capable of, inherently down to the talents of Daviot, to showcase the wealth of literature for new audiences.

Review originally published for Wee Review: