Frankenstein (Sutton House, 19 October 2018)
This feminist re-working of Frankenstein is infuriating. The concept seemed so strong - rewriting the monster as a female, questioning the role of women in our patriarchal society, and exploring subversive themes in Shelley's seminal novel. However this half-baked attempt by Katherine Armitage often entirely misses the point, and in doing so, highlights its most insipid characters without giving the actors much to work with. It borders on the ridiculous, and from the offset alienates its audience.
To begin, the framing device is cringeworthy. The production is set in Sutton House, a National Trust manor house that is the perfect setting for this gothic horror, and the best thing about this production. Inspired by a group of squatters whom occupied Sutton House in the 1980's, we are welcomed into a room in which we sit on sleeping bags whilst they ask us to 'share our art', before the performers start to describe a dream they all shared, which (surprise surprise) is Elizabeth's lead into the story. The only intriguing part of this framing narrative is someone ominously curled up asleep in the corner, whom they say has not spoken since arriving. This leads to nothing and it is ignored. We do not return to this frame to round the story off, nor does it highlight any key themes to do with the 1980 squatting. It is also led by a white, middle class man who then 'transforms' into Frankenstein's friend Henry - despite still being in 1980's clothes. Curiously pointless.
The other curious fact is that for the sake of 'immersive theatre' we are split into separate groups and told to follow different characters who are holding our colour ribbon. These two isolated scenes when it is used feel almost improvised, as if an afterthought to try and add dynamic to the story, and I'm not sure if splitting up the group makes it more intimate or just wastes time.
Initially we follow Elizabeth's narrative into this classic tale. Sadly, as the writer notes, in Shelley's original, Elizabeth has "so little personality"1 she is barely a character. There is slightly more to her in this production, as an emotionally battered wife who chooses to ignore the unsavoury side of her husband. Justine is also given slightly more weight, as a fellow scientist whose ideas are stolen by Frankenstein in creating the creature. However, this is about as far as the feminist ideals go. Both women are pitted against each other as rivals for Frankenstein's affection, and both live with unbearable guilt for things that are not their fault. Their characterisation not helped by the fact that the majority of their scenes take place in a drawing room, where they are just sat on four chairs in a line. It is rather bizarre in an 'immersive' performance to be creating a flat stage area in a room, so the women end up talking rather unnaturally side by side.
Our other lead female 'the creature' is rejected instantly without any context - we do not see her creation, so one would assume the idea of making her female is for Frankenstein to be creating 'the ideal woman' or trying to recreate his mother, but we don't see either of these things discussed. In fact we have no idea why Frankenstein is doing any of it. The creature is the most interesting character and is performed brilliantly by Molly Small, but sadly we never get to follow her point of view as we do in the novel.
I was also not convinced by the decision to change her desires. As widely known, in the novel the creature craves love and intimacy, as most humans do. In this adaptation, they have decided to focus her affections on wanting a baby (specifically a son). Personally for me, focussing on 'woman as mother' adheres to the bygone ideals where women are stripped of their sexuality and their worth is in relation to others, i.e. their child. Of course I am not saying wanting a baby is anti-feminist, I just could not understand why the creature would not want an equal partner in this version. This ideal 'woman as mother' is also infuriating later on, as Elizabeth reveals she is pregnant just before her death as Victor accidentally stabs her in the stomach. Her death is seen as tragic as an impending mother, not just as a woman dying to protect the creature he has created.
As you can see, all subtleties are removed from the text, and in doing so, the script misses the point. For example, as the original story states, Frankenstein is the modern prometheus - he ruins himself and all around him with his own arrogance in playing God. By removing any subtleties to his character, he becomes a one-dimension irritating bully, and it just becomes ridiculous. For example, when creating the baby for the creature he uses his dead younger brothers body, leaving his flesh off to create a half-skeleton thing. It just had no logic to it as a grieving man (whom would be giving his hacked up baby brother back to the creature who killed him) and therefore makes the whole scene just silly. To make the script 'feminist' Katherine Armitage did not need to make Victor any more of a monster - he does that perfectly fine all by himself. All it does is alienate its audience.
The ending however is what really irked me. We are led into a pitch black room, where Victor is confronted by his ghosts, before overdosing. The creature confronts him and is hysterically upset. However, she then turns on the audience, screaming for us to get out, as we did nothing to help her. She repeatedly accuses the audience of doing nothing whilst we watched all these people die. If the intention is to make the audience feel unbearably guilty for something they have not done, as the production was not interactive so of course we have done nothing, then it has suceeded. We leave the room having been screamed at, and wait awkwardly for the actors to join us outside. Instead, front of house staff come and say its time for us to leave. Therefore I left feeling angry that we had been accused of being morally compliant in a scenario that many of us found abhorrent. The production is not interactive, so it is careless and cruel to throw accusations flippantly at your audience, especially as they are feeling vulnerable in an incredibly dark room, and even more so if they are hoping to appeal to a teenage audience. They have been foolish in their production, as having experience teaching teenagers, I know had I brought a class along I would have had many left crying for all the wrong reasons, without learning much about the meaning of the play at all.
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