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Review: Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils.”

Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel, ‘Frankenstein’ was brought to life by The Flanagan Collective in a unique promenade performance through the dark corners of York. On this cold, brisk November evening the audience were armed with hats and scarfs, ready to huddle together and follow the dreams of Victor Frankenstein and Mary Shelley to create life.

Directed by Alexander Wright, the evening took the form of a series of monologues from characters within and outside of the book. Quickly upon the beginning of the play I came to realise that all of the lines which the characters spoke, including the words of Mary and Percy Shelley, were taken from the text of ‘Frankenstein’ itself. I thought this was an incredibly clever approach and increased the validity of the story.

The performance began outside the looming Gothic façade of the Minster as we met Victor, played by Holy Beasley-Garrigan at this moment, and heard of his dreams of creating life. “Whence, I often asked myself, did the principle of life proceed?” Beasley-Garrigan drew the audience in as she crouched towards them, her eyes wide and almost in a trance, making eye contact with the audience. It created an uncomfortable but capturing atmosphere.

Holly Beasley Garrigan-Credit: Ed Sunman
Holly-Beasley Garrigan – Credit: Ed Sunman

Our first encounter with Mary Shelley, played by Veronica Hare, was as haunting as expected. By the side of the Minster now, she introduced her life as being one haunted by ghosts.  Hare portrayed her as a tragic figure, constantly mourning after being born motherless and living childless. (Mary and Percy lost three children.) Like Beasley-Garrigan’s Victor, Hare created close proximities, stroking the arms of the audience and looking wearily into their eyes, a difficult reception to receive but adding to the eerie atmosphere.

The third and final character we met with dreams is the Creature, lonely and abandoned, he has the humble wish to be accepted and shown compassion. “Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was. I cherished hope…” Beasley-Garrison played the Creature from a distance, away from the audience listening intently to Victor’s word, she would interrupt Hare’s speech causing the audience to turn and see only a hooded figure crouched behind a bush or a monument, hiding their appearance. Beasley-Garrison spoke the Creature’s words in a shaken and broken voice, quivering when speaking of the rejection and hatred received. She portrayed the Creature as a broken character, shunned from society, the audience couldn’t help but feel sympathetic towards the abandoned Creature whose dream of acceptance they knew was short-lived.

By stepping outside the novel, allowing the audience to hear the words of Mary and Percy Shelley, the actors created a context to the story of ‘Frankenstein’ itself; we learnt the story came to Mary in a nightmare and overcame her creating a dream to write a story “to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and quicken the beatings of the heart.” Moments were created between Mary and Percy, outside the novel, yet still maintaining its’ lexical field. We saw Percy asking for Mary’s hand and Mary revealing her ghostly tale to her husband. Real-life moments were created in parallel to scenes in the story, for example upon the Creature asking for Victor to create him a female, Percy asked Mary to marry him – both have the dream of a female companion.

What was especially thoughtful of the performance was the language the characters used, reflecting the deeper desires of their dreams. Victor’s want to create life was surrounded by vocabulary of reproduction and through the language his dream became a taboo. It was a desire to break moral conventions and take on the role of God as he as lurks in the darkness to find light. “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.”

Veronice Hare - Credit: Ed Sunman
Veronice Hare – Credit: Ed Sunman

By the end of the play, Mary’s biographic tragedy had come to its climax and the performance successfully created the idea of Victor as Mary’s alter ego. Like Victor, Mary has a dream to bring her nightmare to life, Hare spoke of her book as a ‘creature’ which she desired to be unleashed into the world. A radical female writer and a scientist with controversial ideas, the two are in the struggle of releasing their taboo dreams within the Romantic Movement. Her desire exemplifies the context of the social struggles of the time for a woman to gain acceptance for such literary work, leading in this scenario for Percy to claim authority for the tale’s first publication in 1818, a scene played out in the performance. Like herself, like the creature, Mary’s book is motherless with only a father figure to lead it forward.  The parallels between Victor and Mary were performed via smooth transitions as Mary placed the top hat upon her head and became Victor.

From the theatre to around the minster, to the blue-lit courtyard of Grays court, the actors utilised their surroundings climbing and hiding behind benches and statues and using the artificial lighting to illuminate half their faces, a tableau of Gothic images. The Minster added a tremendously Gothic atmosphere to the performance; the haunting light within the darkness, the looming height of the cathedral and the acoustics it created as the actors’ voices echoed in the darkness.

The end of the play was touching as Hare eloquently read Mary Shelley’s 1831 introduction to the novel as it was republished under her name. It portrayed Mary’s dream as having come true “my dreams were all my own.” Mary accomplished her dream and unleashed her ‘creature’ to the world, and to the audience as Hare and Beasley-Garrigan gave out packages to every member of the audience containing a copy of the novel, a memorable touch.

The Flanagan Collective’s production of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ was a highly immersive piece of outdoor theatre. Despite the lack of action and heavy emphasis on the words, this did not create a lack of concentration. If anything, the intensity of emotion portrayed through spoken words were thought-provoking and influential. Perhaps this is a bias of someone who has previously studied the Gothic novel, however it certainly gives a new perspective for those who are familiar with the text and for those who only know the tale via the warped modern day knowledge of the green monster with bolts in his neck.