“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” is a peculiar name for a stage adaptation of the world-famous gothic novel. It echoes the Francis Ford Coppola film from the nineties: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It isn’t clear why the author’s name is in Coppola’s title, but here the reason soon becomes obvious. This is because Mary Shelley, played by Eilidh Loan, is on stage from start to finish. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t merely the story of Frankenstein, but the story of Shelley as she writes her magnum opus. Writer Rona Munro has created a play about the writing process itself, and to do this with a story about manufacturing humans is particularly ingenious.
As we take to our seats at Theatr Clwyd, the curtain is open to reveal the set. It is a creepy ambience, as eerie piano phrases fade in and out, interchanging with the sound of rattling chains. The auditorium is filled with stage smoke, which adds to the chilling effect, as does the set – which grabs the attention right away. It is reminiscent of a 1920s German Expressionist film set, in the vein of Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. A structure is in the centre, which takes up about a third of the width of the stage. It’s tall, with two balconies to make up a second story, and various long slits for surreal windows, all of which is held up by what looks like dead tree trunks. The straight lines that make up the set, especially the windows, give it this German Expressionist vibe, because the light shining through produces striking light and shade. The stage smoke highlights this by giving the glare and shadow sharp edges. Before the play has even started, we are given a clear idea of the visual style that designers Becky Minto and Grant Anderson are going for. Fortunately the uneasy atmosphere continues throughout the play.
The set’s surreal and dreamy appearance isn’t solely for the sake of creepiness, though; there’s a reason for it in the narrative. The space in front of us is Mary Shelley’s dreamscape; her imagination given a physical form. Like the novel, the chronology of Frankenstein isn’t linear. In fact, it starts near the end, with two sailors finding Victor Frankenstein near the North Pole. Except here, the sailor’s dialogue is interrupted by Mary Shelley herself. She tinkers with the characters in the story, as she rewrites passages and rearranges events. In her professional stage debut, Eilidh Loan physically brings the pain of writing to life. It’s a funny, moving, and stirring performance.
As Victor Frankenstein brings his monster to life, Mary Shelley realises that she, too, is releasing a taboo concept into the world. Just as he realises the implications of his creation, the implications of hers become apparent. This is niftily represented on stage, as the monster begins to chase a fleeing and terrified Mary Shelley. “You’re not real!” she screams. Unease begins to set in here; if the author gets scared, how is the audience supposed to feel? It all makes sense from a historical point of view – a young woman writing a novel about breaking “God’s laws” was brave, to put it lightly.
Mary’s protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, is played energetically by Ben Castle Gibb – also in his stage debut. As a pawn in Shelley’s storytelling, he acts out his tragic life according to her will. It is only the monster, given a nicely human touch by Michael Moreland, over whom she has no influence. This makes sense, because she has no idea how her monster of a novel is going to be received. It’s a clever and multi-layered piece which is, most importantly, entertainingly presented by this talented company.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is in Theatr Clwyd until February 1st.