Oliver Emanuel’s new play The Monstrous Heart is a devastatingly lucid re-examination of Frankenstein’s grisly innards, that restores the psychological terror of Mary Shelley’s gothic masterwork.
He forgoes Shelley’s morally ambiguous scientist and his creation, and instead the blood-and-guts of the Frankenstein (née Prometheus) myth of the nature of evil is played out in the form of a long-coming confrontation between a mother and a daughter. The mother, Meg, battened-down like a storm-hatch; the monster – the daughter – Beth, just out after a four-year stretch, showing up in a tornado of destructive energy to claim what is hers. For an hour and fifteen they circle each other in an increasingly blood-soaked battle of wits, hemmed-in by the low ceiling and howling blizzard of Meg’s Cabin in the Woods, slowly choking on the demons they’ve exorcised.
It’s a brutal, heart-stopping two-hander. Emanuel speaks in the show’s programme of the long gestation of the piece, and this process shows. The bones and sinews of Frankenstein are displayed here with absolutely no extraneous flesh, the soul-violence of this overly-familiar tale made horrifying in its starkness. The unravelling of Beth and Meg is carefully controlled, avoiding caricature, making even these extreme characters affecting in their repulsive, abused humanity. In the middle section, the show suffers a little from jettisoning Frankenstein’s location changes; Meg and Beth’s continuous tearing at each other loses some momentum and the audience start shifting in their seats. But soon enough, Emmanuel turns the tables on the women and the stomach-churning tension returns.
Cécile Trémolières’ menacing, claustrophobic set is a master-class in visual metaphor. A low, dark cabin – more a lab than a home – garden tools splayed menacingly across the wall. Tiny, innocuous, snow boots with primary-coloured laces. A full-size bear carcass draped across centre-stage. Fargo is the immediate pop cultural touch-point, but despite moments of nervous absurdity, there are few laughs here. Oğuz Kaplangi’s sound design stands out, shifting the focus and impact of Meg and Beth’s words as they alternately drown in and disregard each other’s explanations. Tigger Johnson’s lighting is similarly sinuous, darker and darker as night descends, punctuated by puddles of murderous red. The Traverse’s interim Artistic Director Gareth Nicholls’ direction is mercilessly efficient: Meg and Beth circle each other with a hyena-ish instinct for blood, each step towards the play’s gory, inevitable conclusion slipping into place as neatly as the mechanism of a well-oiled shotgun.
But its the performances that power this play. As a pair, Charlene Boyd as Beth and Christine Entwhistle as Meg are equally matched on-stage, thoroughly committed to their characters and deeply understanding of their dangerous despairing reasoning. Beth is violent, unhinged, unpredictable, but Boyd miraculously manages to keep the broken child in Beth onstage alongside the abhorrent adult, so it’s impossible to disregard her desperate flickers of softness. Meg, initially, is the easier to side with – frail and desperate to hang onto her new life. But as she is drawn deeper into her daughter’s brutal confessional, Entwhistle powerfully handles Meg’s tormented psyche, keeping the audience with her as her resolution to maintain her new life grows monstrous.There is little unexpected in The Monstrous Heart, in terms of form or execution. But it is thrillingly good theatre, showcasing a team working at the height of their creative powers to imbue humanity into a story that could easily be dismissed as fantastical melodrama. Probably the piece’s greatest achievement is that it manages to resonate with the same dark corners of the human heart as Mary Shelley’s original reinterpretation of a monster story did 200 years ago.
The Monstrous Heart runs at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh until 2nd November. More info here.