Review: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein at Liverpool Playhouse ***
Two centuries after it was published, the story of Frankenstein and his ‘monster’ continues to resonate in the public consciousness.
Although rather like that other 19th century tale of science clashing with nature – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – it’s possibly more through its myriad depictions and cultural references than the reading of the book itself.
As Dr Frankenstein himself would appreciate, the question for contemporary storytellers thus becomes how to breathe new life in to a tried and tested tale.
Playwright Rona Munro’s answer is to take the author’s voice off the page and realise it in corporeal form, an intriguing concept which runs the story of Frankenstein’s creation alongside...the story of Frankenstein’s creation.
Thus, as the action opens in the windswept, icy wastes of the Arctic, the teenage Mary Shelley (a confident Eilidh Loan making her stage debut in the play) also materialises, basking in a distinctly warmer glow as she asks herself and us “is it frightening enough?”
Eilidh Loan as Mary Shelley. Photos by Tommy Ga-ken Wan
Loan’s Shelley, dressed as a steampunk Gentleman Jack, breaks off from scribbling her fearful thoughts – the shadows of her imagined story closing in on her in the small hours - to break the fourth wall, throwing cynical or deadpan asides in the audience’s direction.
The bulk of her taunting sarcasm is reserved for what she describes as her ‘hero’, the young and driven Dr Frankenstein (Ben Castle Gibb) who works himself in to a state of collapse as he strives to harness science to confound the laws of creation.
“Your dreams were brave and great – even if you weren’t,” she throws after the doomed doctor in the closing minutes of the play.
Munro presents both Mary and Frankenstein as they struggle to come to terms with what they have given birth to – a horror story of epic proportions, and a ‘monster’ (Michael Moreland) who reacts to rejection by his ‘father’ by rejecting the world and its inhabitants in violent fashion.
Michael Moreland and Ben Castle Gibb
It’s a bold conceit that doesn’t entirely come off; the balance of the narrative tends to tip too frequently in Mary’s direction, her pacing and writing and commenting and fierce attitude overpowering the characters at the heart of the actual story.
As a result, the relationship between Frankenstein and his creature never feels fully explored, certainly not in the same way that the empathetic relationship between Mary and the creature is teased out in an affecting scene at the start of the second half.
The action takes place on designer Becky Minto’s striking and ambitiously realised double height set, a bleached interior (Byron’s Lake Geneva villa perhaps?) of bookcases, balconies and bare trees all shrouded in an ethereal mist and accompanied by sound designer Simon Slater’s ghostly bells and foaming water.