The Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva. Summer, but not any old summer. This was 1816, dubbed “the year without summer”, incessant rain, thunder and lightning, cock’s crowing at noon and orange snow covering the mountainsides. Months previously Mount Tamboro in Indonesia had erupted, spewing clouds of volcanic ash northwards, but this is the 19th Century, news travels slowly, superstition, not science still abounds. These sinister, portentous happenings lend an almost supernatural aura to events at the Villa. So, when Lord Byron challenges the gathered company to write a ghost story, it is no wonder that this special set of circumstances gave birth to both John Polidori’s The Vampyre, the tale that inspired Bram Stoker’s Draculaand Mary (Godwin) Shelley’s enduring masterpiece, Frankenstein.
Celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of the novel, theatre company The Occasion take us on “an outlandish trip through the mind of one of literature’s most influential imaginations”. In doing so, they address the oft asked questions and rumours that have endured surrounding the writing of Frankenstein. How could a women, let alone an 18 year old, write this? It was really Percy Bysshe Shelley who wrote it. But this is no ordinary 18 year old. The daughter of feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin, this was a child born for greatness. A woman who, as a small child, received a tiny lectern as a present so she could join her father’s intellectual salon. Laudably, The Monster and Mary Shelley shines a light on the life of Mary. Did she write Frankenstein as a direct result of her unconventional past, or despite it? Tellingly she shouts to the monster, “you, you were the light relief”.
Stewart Ennis’ captivating script sparkles, weaving the contemporary with the classical. There’s high melodrama, horror and a huge dose of comedy. It also draws parallels between celebrity then and now, the hacks of the day following the perceived debauchery at the Villa Diodati as keenly as every move of a Kardashian. There’s also an ear-pleasing contemporary score from Richard Williams.
Catherine Gillard delivers a tour de force performance as Mary. Switching from child to teenage rebel to adult dealing with love, lust and loss. This is a well-judged piece of writing, one that will appeal to those interested in the historical events in the colourful life of Mary, and appeal to young audiences thanks to its quick, modern and witty prose. Highly recommended.
Reviewed on 25 April 2018 then touring | Image:Marc Marnie
In celebration of 200 years since the publication of her most famous novel Frankenstein, The Occasion Theatre has announced the Scottish tour of their new production exploring the life of Mary Shelley.
Director Peter Clerke, writer Stewart Ennis, and performer Catherine Gillard gives us some insight into the production that begins at the Tron Theatre on 20th April.
What drew you to a play about Mary Shelley?
Peter: Firstly, the details of her life; which was remarkable. The more you discover about what she achieved and lived through, the more fascinating she becomes as a person. Then there’s the whole period through which she lived, a time of enormous scientific discovery, of philosophical and cultural change. She was at the forefront of this new, bold world; a world rich with possibilities for dramatisation and of great relevance to the present day.
What can people expect when they come to see The Monster and Mary Shelley?
Catherine: An entertaining production which celebrates the fascinating life of Mary Shelley and asks questions about how and why she went about writing her most famous novel. As a one woman performance the story is told from Mary’s point of view using different incidents from her life, but we look at these from a contemporary view – as if Mary was here today and looking back from now. This isn’t a naturalistic drama – it’s an atmospheric and abstract interpretation of what she might be thinking today looking back.
Peter: It’s been a fascinating show to work on and the contributions from everyone involved – writer, musician, actor, set and lighting designers – have been immense. We think it’ll entertain, introduce a very significant writer and thinker to a new audience and, hopefully, provoke a few questions along the way.
How did you approach writing The Monster and Mary Shelley?
Stewart: I read a couple of biographies of her including an early one by Muriel Spark, who revisited and revised her Mary Shelley biography throughout her life. Then of course, when we discovered that 2018 was the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, along came a never-ending stream of books, articles, lectures, radio documentaries etc. That said, this was never going to be a straightforward historical drama with an actress dressed up in period costume, telling us Mary Shelley’s life from the day she was born until the day she died. It was more a case of forming an impression of Mary Shelley that allowed us to be playful with her but which also felt truthful and respectful, and figuring out how this extraordinary woman’s life and work had relevance for us today.
Rehearsal image: Stewart Ennis
The play explores some of the events in Mary’s life that led to the creation of Frankenstein. How do you weave humour into this at times tragic story?
Stewart: I think that a creative spirit like Mary Shelley must have had a sense of humour; her letters and journals suggest as much. Yes, there was a great deal of tragedy in her life, and a lot of it is explored in this show, but it feels important not to define her by it, or in some way to present her as tragic or as a victim. She lived a life and she dealt with her troubles, and like any human being, humour is one way of dealing with that. The style of the show also helps in that respect. The language is quite anachronistic but we have also included readings from Frankenstein, songs, and theatrical elements from her time, such as melodrama.
Catherine: We have to remember that Mary Shelley was a teenager when she wrote Frankenstein. She didn’t lead up to writing this book with the idea that it would define her – she was just living and coping with everything that life threw at her. And it wasn’t all wonderful – her mother died shortly after Mary’s birth; her father remarried soon afterwards and Mary didn’t get on particularly well with her new stepmother; she was well educated then bundled off to Scotland around the age of 14; and then she met Percy Bysshe Shelley who was already married. They fell in love and ran away to Europe. She was sixteen! She wanted her own life, she was a teenager – she must have been pretty wild and that on its own gives a humour. A spark of life, not just a tragedy. All this plus the fact that she was hanging out with artistic, radical libertarians – they were all for challenging the norms. There had to be funny stuff going on!
Having delved into the life Mary Shelley, what do you most admire about her?
Catherine: I found it extraordinary that by the age of 25 Mary had lived through the loss of her mother, 4 children and her husband, not to mention the suicide of both her half-sister, Fanny and her husband’s first wife, Harriet. Her ability to cope with this level of tragedy and continue to live and work in a society where female writers were still not accepted was amazing. Most of all I admire her imagination and intelligence – to write a novel that continues to fascinate and spark ideas to this day is an astonishing achievement.
How relevant is Mary Shelley today?
Peter: Very – perhaps, unfortunately. The issues that she was most concerned with, of equality, freedom of expression and acceptance have progressed in the past 200 years but, in the #Metoo campaign, ‘fake news’ scandals and the continuing persecutions of minority communities these are still very live issues. Mary Shelley was undoubtedly ahead of her time; we, it can perhaps be argued, are somewhat behind.
What are your views on the original Frankenstein novel?
Stewart: I first read it about thirty years ago and to be honest only had a vague recollection of what it was all about. I had been brought up on the countless Frankenstein films (the Boris Karloff Universal, the Christopher Lee Hammer, the Mel Brooks and the Abbot & Costello) all of which coloured my vision. It was one of the real pleasures of this process to go back to the original novel (or novels, she did a major rewrite many years later) and discover/be reminded that the creature is not some lumbering mute monstrosity with bolts through its neck, but agile in body and in mind and with such a deep longing to be loved. You could say that he – the creature – is a product of an absolutely terrible, brutal, loveless upbringing and his actions are a reflection of that. It’s a more complex book than I think people imagine, and if our play moves people to read the novel, then I’d be delighted.
Atmospheric, moving and darkly comic with a pulsing, cinematic score, this is a contemporary voyage into the life of Mary Shelley – the Gothic Girl who electrified the world. Presented by The Occasion Theatre.