Mary Shelley's Frankenstein @ Theatr Clwyd, Mold

(Watched Tues 28th Jan. 2020)

I have a confession to make. I’ve never read Frankenstein. It was on the curriculum, but I couldn’t be bothered…I read the minimum amount of Gothic Horror I could in order to get me through the semester and then I spent the rest of the time horse-riding. I’ve never watched the films, so I have no idea if they’re any good or not, although I’ve heard that the book and the films have very little in common. 

I haven’t seen the National Theatre production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller as my preconceptions meant that I just didn’t find the tale that appealing.*  I did watch a version of Frankenstein by Box Clever Theatre Company once; it was a thought-provoking production and I thought that perhaps I should buy the book, but once again…before I could think about buying it, other tomes on the bookcase had vied for my attention and won.

Now there was something that intrigued me in the advertisement for Rona Munro’s adaptation which compelled me to go and watch it. Her version puts the novelist, Mary Shelley, right at the heart of the production. That idea aroused my curiosity…the idea of her, the creator of Frankenstein, being on stage with Frankenstein, the creator of the monster. What a spine-tingling thought!

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” Mary Wollstonecraft

Before looking at the play, it is interesting to understand a little about Mary Shelley and novels in the era she lived. She was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, herself an English writer and advocate of women’s rights. Interestingly – in her book The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) - she argued that women should be given an education, further elaborating that it was because women educate their children and they could also be more than mere ornamental wives to their husbands. 

The book is one of the earliest known forms of feminist writing and Wollstonecraft argued that women deserved the same fundamental rights as men. What was interesting about her book, was that she argued that women were superficial because they lacked an education, and in it she launched a brutal attack on those women who had an obsession for reading sentimental novels. There were far better things women could be doing with their time than idly lying around filling their heads with saccharine tosh!

The novel, in that era, became the domain of the female reader thanks to Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela. In 1719, Robinson Crusoe became the first novel to be published in English. The tale was a bromance – women didn’t feature in it – and Richardson, a middle-aged printer decided to write something for the female reader. Pamela is 15 when her female employer dies and her son, Mr B, becomes Pamela’s boss. Written as a series of letters, the novel flew off the shelves, women couldn’t get enough of what was essentially the 1700’s version of a soap opera. Mr B is an extremely attractive man and Pamela has undoubtedly fallen in love with him, however, her virtue must remain intact. It is essentially a book focusing on sexual harassment in the workplace. Today such actions would invoke anger, back then it was a novel of power and seduction which sent women swooning. (I’ve not read the book, although I enjoyed listening to the Audible version which features my favourite Mr B – Tom Burke – playing the eponymous role of the immoral employer!)

The popularity of Pamela was astronomical. She was the first character to have memorabilia launched. You could buy Pamela costumes, dresses, fans; there were sermons written about her, the novel was a vehicle in which you could get a message across to your audience. Mary Wollstonecraft, despite her comments about women reading novels, wrote a number of bodice rippers herself to get her philosophical ideas out in the public arena, but ironically, it would be her daughter who would gain notoriety and bring her philosophical ideas to the public’s attention.

Mary Wollstonecraft died about a month after giving birth to her second daughter, also called Mary, who was brought up and educated by her political father. It must have been hard for Mary, knowing that her birth ended her mother’s life. Was this the subliminal start of her story…the destruction of creator/creation?

When she was 16, Mary began a romance with one of her father’s political followers, the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Two years later, in 1816, they married after the suicide of Percy’s first wife and they spent the summer in Geneva with Lord Byron. Days of incessant rain confined the group to the house where boredom was setting to set in. Byron suggested that all of the party should try to write a ghost story. As each day passed, Mary got more and more stressed at not being able to conjure up a story, until one evening when she dreamed of a creature that had been assembled and brought to life by its creator. Mary was just 18, and about to unleash an enormously powerful book into society.

“Is it frightening enough?” “Now that’s a proper deathbed scene. You’re welcome.” Eilidh Loan as Shelley

Rona Munro’s adaptation for the stage brings Mary Shelley to the forefront, cleverly incorporating Shelley scribbling her thoughts manically at her writing desk and allowing the audience to see her creation unfold before their eyes. We must remember, when the novel was published, Mary Shelley was not credited with writing it…she was invisible. Most thought the book had been penned by a man. Mary is no longer invisible, she takes centre stage and tells her ghost story, a story designed to terrify and unsettle its audience.

This production appears to remain faithful to Shelley’s original text, no rubber monsters with bolts in their necks, but a creature that deserves recognition and understanding after it is spurned by its creator. Despite there only being a cast of seven, who doubled or tripled up on their roles, the play remains fresh throughout, holding the audience’s attention.

Elidh Loan plays the pivotal role confidently, weaving together Shelley’s inner thoughts with the characters she has created, confirming that the monster was created in her dreams and has haunted her ever since. She speaks directly to the audience, breathing life into her work and sharing her dark thoughts, her fears and her humour as she echoes the struggles of Victor Frankenstein with her own struggles.

Victor Frankenstein is a happy young man, full of ambition and scientific enquiry. His life is taken over by his scientific enquiries and as his creation is given life, Frankenstein’s life is turned upside down. Ben Castle Gibb manages to capture his tortured soul as he battles with recognising what he has done, and the enormous emotional strain he has put on himself and his loved ones.

“Do not forget that you created me. If you were God I ought to be your Adam and I’m rather your fallen angel…I was benevolent and kind. Misery made me a fiend. Make me happy and I shall again be virtuous.”

A dreamy but uneasy quality is brought to the stage in Becky Minto’s stark white set, which is covered with bare trees which allow movement from stage to the upper balconies where the monster can survey his victims. A haze of smoke and jagged lighting completes the ghostly atmosphere, whilst the music heightens the senses and is rather disconcerting.

Michael Moreland plays the Monster as an articulate and intelligent sentient being. He wanted to be loved, but rejection turned him into the cruel killer that he became. He is the embodiment of someone who lacks all human rights.

Whilst the tale is meant to be a ghost story, it is also a morality tale. If you create something, you need to be responsible for it, you cannot shy away from something when the going gets tough, or you are revulsed by what you have created. You have an obligation, so think carefully – you might get more than what you wish for.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a powerful story and it is hard to imagine that it came from the head of an 18-year-old. It is also a story that although created in 1816 is still resonant of the world around us. Science can be a force for good, but what is our responsibility to the things we create, especially if we can create machines (AI) cleverer than us?

As the play ends, Mary is set free from the monster of her dark dreams, but she realises that it is not the creature she needs to fear the most, but those who encounter it.

After THEATR CLWYD the tour continues:


*Since writing (but not publishing) this article, Covid-19 has brought our theatres to a close and National Theatre Live has brought some of its productions to YouTube via National Theatre at Home on a Thursday evening. Tonight (Thurs 30th April) brings the National Theatre production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller to our TV screens…so I’ve no excuse not to sit on the sofa with a brew watching it!