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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Directed by Donald T. Sanders

The Irene Diamond Stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center, New York City

A Review by Anna Mercer

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The last stage production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein I saw was a wonderful experience. The Royal Opera House’s ballet version of the novel was captivating, and reflected the text’s themes of pursuit and terror with a striking intensity (read my review here). I’m always wary of adaptations of things I love – but after my positive experience at the ballet in London, I decided to go along to ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ when I was visiting New York. This new production by ‘Ensemble for the Romantic Century’ was held in the Pershing Square Signature Center, a lovely venue. But the play itself was a disappointment overall, with only a few redeeming features.

One of the many differences between this play and the ballet was the inclusion of Mary Shelley herself as a character. It is always exciting to hear Mary Shelley’s words read aloud on stage – and in this case it was not just the text of her ‘hideous progeny’, but excerpts from her letters and journals. However there were some strange modifications. The composition of the novel is moved to 1819. This is clearly because those behind the production had chosen to emphasise that famous interpretation of Frankenstein as a thinly-veiled account of Mary Shelley’s grief at the loss of her young children. Such readings are outdated and limited, but they create tension and emotion on stage, something played to full effect here by the actors (who, incidentally, use American accents). Other reviewers also disliked the representations of Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley – The New York Times critic Laura Collins-Hughes wrote that ‘Mia Vallet’s Mary and Paul Wesley’s Percy are jarringly contemporary in affect and lack a vital spark’.

Moreover, the play – as sadly seems to be the norm for dramatisations of the Shelleys’ lives – pits Percy and Mary against each other. This seems to be for two reasons. Firstly, to create ‘comic’ effect, and second to champion Mary as a hidden genius underappreciated by her husband. Mary is trying to write, but is visibly exasperated by the comments made by Percy. There is some truth in this – he did suggest adding more polysyllabic, Latinate terms to the Frankenstein manuscript, as you can see for yourself by visiting the (free) online Shelley-Godwin Archive. However, Mary’s eye-rolling in this scene is added for dramatic effect; the writer/director encourages the audience’s laughter because of her exasperation. We are meant to see Percy’s suggestions as unhelpful, to Mary, to anyone. The lack of any mention of Percy’s literary achievements (besides some short lyrics – none of the longer, philosophical poems) makes his input seem even more arrogant. The play seeks a cheap laugh by entreating a modern audience to mentally respond with: ‘that’s no improvement! What a pompous guy that Shelley is’.

The result is a negative image of both authors. Although space does not permit me to explain more here, it is now the common understanding of the Shelleys’ relationship that they were two participants in a reciprocal collaborative exchange. Mary Shelley invited Percy’s comments on Frankenstein, her first novel. Seek out the work of Charles E. Robinson, someone who knew the Frankenstein manuscripts better than anyone, and you will find his commentary explains the two-way creative discussions that went into producing the text. Percy’s alterations were accepted and included by Mary and they appear in the final published version. As such any implication that Mary disapproved of his involvement is condescending to her, as it paints her as a pushover and a victim. In presenting Percy as a patronising partner to Mary, the play actually ends up patronising Mary herself.

Mary’s father William Godwin is similarly represented as a bully. However, there were some positive aspects of the production as a whole: the set was gorgeous and complex (I speak as someone with no experience of theatre production and set design, I might add!), and the Creature – as is often the case – steals the show. Robert Fairchild’s writhing movements on stage were striking, and his performance was clearly very influenced by the Danny Boyle production at the National Theatre with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. The score – including works by Liszt, Bach and Schubert on oboe, piano, organ and harpsichord – and Fairchild’s obvious talent as a dancer made certain scenes from the novel a real success. The mezzo soprano (Krysty Swann) was also a delight.

I understand that tension and misery of experience, including death and isolation, creates more drama for a theatre production than an account of the social nature of creativity, and the true story behind the genesis of one of the greatest novels in English literature. But I am disappointed by this work of art as it ends up crippling another work of art. Those who are unfamiliar with Mary’s oeuvre and talents would leave misinformed and uninterested. For Mary Shelley fans, there were no new insights here, nor was it particularly enjoyable. The focus on Frankenstein and literally nothing else she ever wrote (besides her letters and journals) is becoming perhaps a little tiring, but I hope such a trend is peculiar to this bicentenary year, and that things may improve in the future.

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