This month sees the 200 year anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein. The classic tale of the eponymous Genevan scientist creating life from the lifeless is very well-known, but the story of the writer behind it, Mary Shelley – “Frankenstein’s Frankenstein” – is certainly less familiar to most. Staged to celebrate the bicentenary of the immortal gothic tale, the Sewell Barn Company’s latest production Blood and Ice by Liz Lochhead explores the tragic life story of the famous author. And like Victor’s creature, it’s very much a monster mash of ideas.
The play follows an older Shelley – a respected writer working on a new book – as she reflects back on her life. Literally haunted by thoughts of her character’s Creature, Mary takes us through the story of her life, leading up to and beyond the fateful summer of 1816 when the already world-weary eighteen year old Shelley – then Mary Godwin – and her married lover, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley and their child William, along with the infamous Lord Byron, his lover (and Mary’s step sister) Claire Clairmont and personal physician John Polidori, all travelled to Byron’s house near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, and challenged each other to write a horror story…
Full of tragedy and unhappiness, the story makes a big show of just how miserable Shelley’s life was before and after writing Frankenstein: the deaths of her mother, her first three children and her husband by the time she was 25 all took a heavy toll on her. But more than that, the play takes in unsubtle discussions of passion, hedonism and freedom versus responsibility, as well as the cruelty of normal life versus a life of privilege, and a big dose of feminism. Earnest and well-meant – perhaps too much so – it’s an accurate and thoroughly researched tribute to the life of the author – but is it good theatre? Sadly not. The script, although heavy in subject matter and tragedy, is light on dramatic tension, being as it is more interested in having various historical figures argue and discuss their individual political viewpoints, rather than telling a gripping story. (It also offers little hope for the historically-challenged; the play’s lack of detailed exposition suggests the author has assumed the audience are already fairly knowledgeable about Shelley et al and are here very much for the ride.)
Which is a shame, because the always reliable cast and crew of Sewell Barn Company give their latest production everything they’ve got, managing to bring a few sparks of life to this almost lifeless script.
Like a mad scientist, director Sabrina Poole’s continuously imaginative – and admittedly occasionally flashy – additions to the script keep the viewer’s interest throughout; including most effectively splitting the Creature into two distinct characters representing male and female aspects of humanity, played to excellent effect by Dawn Brindle and Greg Lyndsay-
If anything, she could have gone even further, perhaps by including appearances from Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft – the first feminist – considering how her precious political views affected her life, rather than just have Mary visit her grave; it might have also been nice actually see John Polidori, the only other writer to make anything positive of the trip to Switzerland, rather than to have him talked about a lot and yet be noticeably absent from the stage. But these are minor quibbles.
The cast also do everything that can be done to improve the weak material. Although a tad too old to play a 28 year old, Phillip Rowe is outstanding as Lord Byron, indeed in some respects too good, as his ability to draw the audience’s complete attention to his every word means he is very much missed when not on stage.
Age also affects Sam Todd’s performance as the 24 year old Percy Shelley; Todd’s youthful demeanour (and the fact that is younger than Emma Stephenson’s Mary) make the the relationship more like a mother and wayward child, rather than lovers. But then, maybe that was the point.
Verity Roat as the (initially) carefree Claire Clairemont and Rebekah Oelrichs as the maid
Unfortunately, Emma Stephenson’s Mary – although not by any means bad – doesn’t hold the audience’s attention as much as she really should for such a central role. Frequently rattling through the narrative dialogue – almost to herself at times – without giving time for the audience to inwardly digest it, she makes for a difficult ‘way in’ for the viewer. However, the moments where she slows down and gives the dialogue time to breathe demonstrates that she can be really rather impressive.
Blood and Ice is trying to be two things at once, and unfortunately neither quite succeeds. There’s an amazing play trying to get out, but sadly the talented cast and crew are held back by a clumsy script. That said, for anyone already fully aware of the history and interested in seeing the lives of Shelley et al come to life, I’m sure it’s very effective. But going in without the research, as a standalone piece of drama, I’m not so sure at all.