I’ve got a bone to pick with Hollywood’s tradition of adapting Frankenstein. Thanks to horror films of the last century, the reanimated monster we conjure up is a burly, bolt-necked numbskull. It’s a far cry from the troubled outsider who doesn’t ask to be feared and hated, the character we too often forget from the pages of Mary Shelley’s Genevan tundra. Alexander Wright’s retelling takes a more sympathetic view toward the monster by focussing on the life of its ultimate creator, Shelley herself.
The promenade performance weaves its way through York with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Holly Beasley-Garrigan) and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Veronica Hare – later to become a Shelley herself as the play progresses. To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to characters by their first names). Beasley-Garrigan brings a welcome dose of bravado to Percy’s philosophies. With her confidence and vaunting in front of a cathedral, it’s easy to see the charm attached to such a radical figure. On the other hand, Beasley-Garrigan can so quickly retreat into her own space that Percy becomes impenetrable.
Next to her is Hare’s Mary. The two share a comfortable chemistry which shows the well-worn connection between the two. That they are intellectual equals is never in question. Too often however, we’re passed over from one actor to the next. Mary and Percy are estranged lovers, they live in the outskirts of one another’s lives. The brief moments we get of the two together further affect that sense of loss we feel when the two cannot meet again: the liminal is invoked as the two flow over one another like ghosts.
If talk of liminal imagery is enough to invoke Gothic tones, the Minster definitely hammers it home. When you have the (second) largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe at your disposal, why wouldn’t you use it to your advantage? And Wright certainly does, to the full benefit of the play. Mary questions her ability to create such a hideous character whilst gesturing wildly at the Minster’s east window. Our first interaction with her is on the Minster’s steps. In the narrative she’s just lost a child and it feels fitting that she should be found in this place of prayer and contemplation. The visual effect is stunning, too. Often I have to restrain myself from taking photos. The overall view we get is an almost cinematic one. True, there’s some angles where faces are obscured but the nature of promenade means moving is encouraged.
It’s important that the play is named Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as this script doesn’t seek to adapt the novel so much as explore the woman responsible for it. It may sound on paper like a softer approach but Shelley’s life is forged from bleak circumstance, and the Mary we see is a tortured one, disturbed by her own thoughts. You could even say at a push (and I will) that the apostrophe isn’t possessive but rather puts the two on a level. “Mary Shelley is Frankenstein”: a crazed inventor and quick to relate to Frankenstein’s monster, either through being a motherless child, having a troubled relationship with her father, or being a figure (a female writer) that society isn’t willing to welcome. Mary feels like an outcast before she’s even set out to accomplish her work, and this portrayal by Hare displays her vulnerability despite the achievements and philosophies associated with her now.
The Flanagan Collective have all the resources at their fingertips to flick a switch and activate the horror tropes connected to adaptations of Frankenstein, but the restraint shown in eschewing such a predictable line is admirable. The risk pays off; this isn’t a straight adaptation but instead a play that challenges our perceptions of the monster. Its creator isn’t a crazed scholar, ‘but a girl’. Wright’s script does repeat phrases like ‘a motherless child’ and ‘just a girl’ to a distracting extent, but these are the distractions Mary was facing on a daily basis. The novel is what matters, not the setbacks, and this is confirmed when copies of the book are handed out at the play’s conclusion. Flanagan are inviting us to reconsider the novel. The envelope window shows the distorted face of the monster peeping through, but we know there’s a lot more to it than shock value alone.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is on as a promenade piece in York until 26th November 2016. Click here for more details.