Book and theatre review: “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

I had my fill of Frankenstein last week – I read the book, saw the play and listened to Derek Jacobi narrating the audio book! My book club selected it as we were looking to read a classic, and, as it happens to be the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication, it was also showing at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in a new adaptation by April de Angelis.

2018-04-19 11.30.32It is extraordinary to think that this remarkable novel, still as popular and as shocking today as ever, was written when Mary was just 19 years old. The fact that she was such a literary talent is not surprising given that she was the offspring of the two famous intellectuals, Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher and author of the seminal feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, the radical political philosopher. In her lifetime, she was highly regarded as a radical writer and intellectual, as well as being the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she met and fell passionately in love with at the age of 17. Her reputation since her death, however, has been overshadowed by that of her husband’s, with whom she bore four children (three died in infancy), whose affairs and financial troubles she endured, and whose poems she edited both before and after his death. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned at sea in 1822, just six years into their marriage when she was 25. She died at the age of 53 in London from a suspected brain tumour.

Mary ShelleyBy any standards her life was remarkable and in the last few years her reputation has been revived and she has begun to be more widely considered as a formidable talent in her own right, rather than just a ‘one-book author’. Frankenstein has been a staple of English literature GCSE and A level syllabuses for years, but most of her other works have fallen out of print. A new biography, In Search of Mary Shelley: The girl who wrote Frankenstein, by Fiona Sampson was published earlier this year, some of which I caught when it was serialised in Radio 4 recently. What I heard sounded fascinating. Sadly it is not available on the BBC iPlayer at the moment.

Frankenstein is a brilliant book. It’s not particularly long so if you are not accustomed to the classics it is not too daunting. It is extraordinarily sophisticated in the themes it explores, from ideas about religion and creation, the vanity of man (men) and moral relativism. Its structure is also interesting: it is narrated initially by Robert Walton in letters to his sister. Walton is the Captain of a ship which he is sailing to the Arctic in the hopes of making a great discovery about the North Pole. He describes his ambitions, but also his loneliness and need for companionship. He meets an unexpected friend in the form of Victor Frankenstein who is on an unlikely pursuit of a mysterious giant figure which Walton and his crew had previously spotted. Frankenstein takes over the narration and we learn about the terrible events that preceded this chase, from his early family life in Switzerland and tragic death of his mother, his relationship with his cousin Elizabeth, to his university life in Ingolstadt. It was in Ingolstadt that he first felt the pain of academic embarrassment, when his naïve ideas were exposed, and he set out on the extraordinary task of creating a human. Unfortunately for Frankenstein, he did not think it through, and once he realised the horror of what he had done, quite soon after he brought his creation to life, he disowns it and leaves to its own fate while he spends the next few years wringing his hands. Frankenstein’s procrastination is fatal.

For a time there is also narration from the ‘monster’ (relayed by Frankenstein) who manages initially to survive on vegetation whilst concealed in a hovel, from which he is able to spy on a once wealthy but now fallen French family in a small village. From them he learns language and the ways of humans, and hopes that he will be able to become friends with them, as he longs for company. Unfortunately, when he introduces himself to them, his hopes are shattered; they assume from his, presumably horrific appearance, that he means them harm and they beat him and drive him out of the cottage. Disappointed and infuriated, the monster goes in search of Frankenstein, with the intention of demanding that he make him a female companion, with the threat of death and destruction if he refuses.

I will say no more. Though the story is well known, I do not wish to give away any further spoilers for anyone unfamiliar with it. I wanted to finish the book before seeing the play, so I mixed reading it with listening to the audiobook narrated by Derek Jacobi. This was read brilliantly, as you would expect, though I have to say it gives you the impression that both Walton and Frankenstein are older, wiser men when in fact it is their naivety and youthful impetuosity that is partly responsible for the grave decisions both make.

Frankenstein play
Copyright –  Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The play was also wonderful and provided a rewarding extra-curricular outing for the book club! It was visceral, shocking, truly gruesome in parts. I loved the way the complex narrative structure, and the jumping back and forth in time was handled. I also loved the way it was interpreted for a 21st century audience, particularly in drawing out the feminist undertones (Elizabeth is played more strongly than in the book, while Frankenstein is often exposed as foolish). It had thrills, spills and lots of action, and stayed very true to the book, leaving out remarkably little and using some of the really powerful passages (particularly those spoken by the monster) verbatim. It will have been a fantastic bonus for any young people studying it for exams this year.

A thoroughly enjoyable monstrous week!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Lowry

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I was lucky to get a ticket for this performance at The Lowry in Salford last week. The play  has been a huge success for the National Theatre company in London and is currently on tour. You will  no doubt have heard of the book by Mark Haddon, which was published in 2003, and was a Costa Book of the Year and winner of the Guardian’s children’s fiction prize. Ostensibly written for a YA readership, it’s nonetheless a powerful read for adults.

The central character, Christopher Boone, has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means he operates at a very logical, ordered and predictable level. He struggles to make sense of emotion, finds social relationships very challenging and interprets his world in a very literal way. At the start of the story Christopher lives with his father and we are told that his mother has died of a heart attack. The dog of the title belongs to Christopher’s neighbour, Mrs Shears, and when the dog is found dead one morning, stabbed with a garden fork, he sets out to uncover the identity of the dog’s killer. His research does not generate the hoped-for answers but instead raises more questions for both Christopher and the audience. It also causes tension between Christopher and his father, who plainly wants him to cease his investigation. Christopher is completely incapable of interpreting the possible causes of his father’s stress and backing off from the task of finding the dog’s killer, but we as the audience, begin to see that there is more to this incident than meets the eye, and that people (Christopher’s father, the neighbours) are hiding something.

Eventually, Christopher searches his father’s bedroom and finds a stack of letters addressed to him from his mother, who is not in fact dead, but alive and living in London. Feeling that he can no longer trust his father he decides his only option is to go and find her and to live with her in London. What both the book and the stage play do so brilliantly is to convey the sense that logic and intelligence alone are not sufficient to navigate your way in the world. Christopher is a brilliant mathematician (he is doing his Mathematics ‘A’ level at his specialist school at 16) but getting from Swindon to London on a train, and then using the Underground to travel to north-west London, is a near-impossible task. For someone with Christopher’s condition, the noise, the crowds, the proximity of people to one another, are overwhelming. The stage direction is brilliant at conveying the sensory overload and also the extent to which the day to day humdrum interactions that most of us take for granted are utterly baffling to someone whose brain works at an entirely logical level; figurative language is hard for him to comprehend, and some of the most basic instructions and conventions cause him enormous confusion and therefore distress.

I had forgotten elements of the plot when I went to see the play, which was nice because it kept a bit of the dramatic tension for me. It would still have been highly enjoyable even if I had recalled the ending, however. The staging is superb, demonstrating cleverly how Christopher can only function in an ordered, boundaried environment where there is certainty and dependability. The dialogue and acting were also tremendous, with elements of humour, and there is great empathy for Christopher. His condition is dealt with not just sensitively, but triumphantly – it is the ‘normal’ adults around him whose shortcomings are exposed.

I went alone, but really wished I’d taken my 16 year-old son (who has read the book) and/or my 12 year-old daughter, both of whom would have enjoyed it. I think younger teenagers will be able to identify more readily than adults with the confusion of modern life, the challenges inherent in just getting from A to B when you have no experience of it, and the incomprehensibility of the codes that adults use to communicate with one another when they are afraid to use more direct language. The recommended age is 11+.

The run at the Lowry was short, just a week, but the production remains at the Gielgud Theatre in London and is on a UK tour until the end of September. Catch it if you can, it’s fantastic.