Playwright Rona Munro tells us in her forward to the programme for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that she has a “visceral aversion” to analyses of a writer’s work that use their biography “to interpret the stories they told”. Of Mary Shelley’s Gothic horror classic, she argues: “Much of what we think we know is actually just the shape of the mountain of other people’s ideas and interpretations.”
Frankenstein’s origin story is almost as famous as the book itself; the monster was conjured by a teenage Shelley in response to a challenge by Lord Byron in the summer of 1816. So a stage adaptation that promised to strip the author’s tumultuous biography from its interpretation, and offer instead “a fright, a good story”, was an intriguing prospect.
It was somewhat surprising, therefore, that the character of Shelley was not merely infused into the narrative of Victor Frankenstein’s tormented life but literally there on stage, in the charismatic form of actor Eilidh Loan. Scenes depicting Shelley’s writing process – frantic scribbling at her desk, references to her dreamed visions of the plot – are interspersed with the central plot, as are rather too many fourth wall-breaking quips to the audience in the manner of a steampunk Fleabag. “You’re welcome,” she smirks after a “proper deathbed scene”, long leather coat swishing as she sticks her pen back into her bun, job done.
Loan plays the role she’s been given well in what is her professional stage debut; she is an engaging presence playing a strong woman with, as we are repeatedly informed, a certain scorn for the merits of supposedly “great men”. But constant reversion to the writer punctures the tension and removes much of the thrill of the story she is supposedly conjuring. Ben Castle-Gibb, another young debutant, does a good line in melodrama and angst as the obsessive scientist, and Becky Minto’s ethereal white, smoke-filled set conjures adds a suitably ghostly atmosphere to proceedings.
There are also hints at some interesting questions during the main action, including the limits of desirable scientific progress, which has resonance in this age of AI angst. But fuller exploration of such themes, and of the characters that Mary Shelley created, are crowded out by the depiction of her at work. In attempting to give Shelley her own voice, therefore, this adaptation – though never dull and often thought-provoking – loses something of what she actually said.
Main image: Eilidh Loan (Mary Shelley) & Ben Castle-Gibb (Victor Frankenstein) in Frankenstein. Photo by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is at the Playhouse, Liverpool until November 16, 2019 and on tour.