Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Frankenstein by Nick Dear

Frankenstein by Nick Dear.  An Ensemble Theatre production presented by The Street, Canberra, May 7-11, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 7

My favourite book right now is the 802 page work by Harvard Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker – The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.  Having just seen Dear’s version of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel – and Lee Jones’ gripping performance of the ‘monster’ – I’m glad Pinker has the evidence to prove his case.  We might look back on ‘Gothic Horror’ as just another blood-curdling theatrical and literary genre, but there’s more to Shelley’s story than you might think.

But first, to this production.  What a knockout blow to modern sensibilities!  How should a Sensitive New Age Guy respond without getting snagged by his willingness to suspend his disbelief?  But snagged I certainly was by this sorry tale.  Except at the tail end, when it seemed to me it should have been set in Antarctica where the memory of Scott’s ill-fated expedition would have made Frankenstein’s monster’s mania for reaching the pole even more horrible. 

But then Dear is British, so I suppose Go North Young Man has to be the thing to do.

The set (and presumably costumes) by Simone Romaniuk, the on-stage amplified cello played by Heather Stratfold (music composed by Elena Kats-Chernin), the lighting by Nick Higgins, the soundscape by someone not mentioned, and the direction by Mark Kilmurry were all fascinating.  The core approach was highly stylised, in the visuals and the audio, and equally in the movement and acting by the cast: Katie Fitchett, Andrew Henry, Lee Jones, Brian Meegan, Michael Rebetzke, Michael Ross, Olivia Stambouliah.

(Despite being New Age, though, I do find it annoying when a company, especially and surprisingly the Ensemble, has minimum information about the cast only on the web.  I want a proper program, please.)

There was never any doubt that we were watching a carefully designed piece of theatre, yet despite the ‘alienation effect’, it was easy to be drawn into the emotional effect at the same time.  It was quite extraordinary to find myself ‘believing’ in these characters’ dilemmas from the capital 'R' Romantic past.

This is where Pinker sneaks back into the story.  In the half-century leading up to Mary Shelley’s writing, English language books published per decade rose from about 2000 to more than 7000 (after being zero in 1475).  In that same half-century, the abolition of judicial torture (that is, torture ordered by a court) spread rapidly throughout European countries, leaving – by Shelley’s time – only Spain, the Vatican, Portugal and Russia still officially torturing people.  Pinker does point out that England still executed people, but had introduced the more humane method of drop-hanging, which ”instantly renders the victim unconscious”, in 1783, when public hangings were also abolished.  He goes on to say “The display of corpses on gibbets was abolished in 1834, and by 1861 England’s 222 capital offenses had been reduced to 4.”  One of Pinker’s arguments is that the spread of the printed word, and particularly the ability to read, combined with the rising popularity of fiction in the novel, was a real factor in changing attitudes against the acceptance of violence.

His study of the evolutionary background to human violence (this is a scientific work, not a New Age touchy-feely fuzzy waffly book) suddenly came to mind.  Frankenstein works because Shelley (and Dear) understood and have laid before us the very motivations that Pinker explains in neurological brain studies.  At the very time that attitudes were changing, Shelley got the story right.  This play is enlightening: in a couple of hours the artist in Shelley and Dear reveals directly what it has taken me several weeks of reading the scientist Pinker to understand.  And I’m still only on Page 603!  199 more to go!