The Hallowe’en season is one for iconic monsters, and few are as iconic as Frankenstein’s creature. After so many incarnations on paper, on the stage, and on the screen, it is far from an idle question to wonder whether it is still possible to inject new life on the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creation – whether it is still possible to tell it anew from a yet different angle, providing a take on it that can say something that has not been said before. This ambitious adaptation by Rona Munro, now opening at Cardiff’s New Theatre, is asking itself precisely this question – and coming up with some intriguing answers.
It does so by shifting the focus, in a sense, from the characters to the author, bringing Mary Shelley herself on stage in a high-power performance by a commanding Eilidh Loan, and having her not just tell the story, but conjure it up, paralleling in a sense her writing process with the process that brings Victor Frankenstein (played by a skittish, convincingly stressed Ben Castle Gibb) to the creation of his creature. The Mary Shelley parts are not written simply as a framing device; here they are directly part of the action. She interacts almost directly with her characters, though it is notable that the only one she appears to have a real back-and-forth dialogue is precisely the Monster (Michael Moreland, offering a very physical performance in a role that carries a heavy weight). In a way, the Monster is Mary’s legacy as much as, if not more than, Victor’s; and so the balance of the play becomes that of the relationship between the tormented Monster and both of his creators. Where Victor aims to undo his creature, Mary aims to make him immortal; and the final climax of this production builds up to the moment where these two opposing pulls break apart, and history is made – both in the real world and the fictional.
In this way it is possible to say that this take on Frankenstein is really a tale about the creative process, and the timeless art of telling stories – the God-like stature the writer achieves in creating whole worlds, and lording over the lives of the characters populating them (Mary is, in places, somewhat callous in this regard; after all, the plot is the most important thing, and the message it conveys, and in this light the death of a character with whom an emotional connection had been built can be accepted as a mere necessity, and even be performed off-stage if needs be). But the actual plot of Victor and the creature is not completely secondary to this narrative thread – it is its necessary complement; the focus is shifted from the original warning about the misuse of science to an exploration of the reasons behind Victor’s – and the Monster’s – actions, and so it becomes a poignant reflection on loneliness and the need for human companionship. These same needs, in a way, very much inform the process that brings Mary, among her own fears and misgivings, to write the story, and so the two lines are smoothly intertwined, and come across as organic through the comparatively short running of the play.
The stage setting engineered by designer Becky Minto and lighting designer Grant Anderson is a moody and skeletal one, a perfect frame for a sort of modern Gothic with its bare building frames, leafless trees, and perpetually rolling mist. The production relies heavily on mood, and perhaps it must be so in any take on the Frankenstein story; especially one like this, which goes back to the very root of it – not just the book, but the book in the process of being written – shedding away all the layers of subsequent cinematic reinterpretation. It is, really, a fresh look at Frankenstein, something that given the well-lived history of this tale, is in itself an impressive achievement. In this light, it matters little that the tone is at times too shrill, that the movement is sometimes too frantic in a way that seems to want to evoke tension artificially; the ability of the production, and especially its clever writing, to provoke reflection and offer a new perspective on the story is strength enough to guarantee its success.
New Theatre until November 2.