[Review:] THE MEN WHO MADE FRANKENSTEIN, Etcetera Theatre, London.
With a needle in one hand and a white cloth in another, Marcus Frewin-Ridley (playing Rupert) sits in one of four sections bordered by long strips of white tape converging Downstage Center. Seeming anxious and disturbed, he glances over at the body of a male covered by a shroud of white. This intriguing visual is the opening of The Men Who Made Frankenstein, written and directed by Simon Christopher and staged at the Etcetera Theatre.
I will start this review by considering this play's dramatic text. The concept for this play is one that is creative and engaging. Whilst the common literary error to speak of Frankenstein's Monster as Frankenstein himself is made in this play's title (though, not in its synopsis), this allusion to Frankenstein causes a myriad of images to arise in the audience's mind, making a successful link between an intermingling of body parts and the creation of a monster. Taking characters out of their everyday environments and placing them in a confounding and mysterious purgatory is always a captivating thematic, making a good premise for this play.
However, I will say that this premise was perhaps too weighted in performance. Most of the dialogue centred itself around the characters being trapped in this dystopia: What will they do to us? Who are they? Why are we here? And upon the fact that they had mostly all been hanged before their 'death'. Little was developed upon in terms of the characters themselves, however. Throughout the entire play, all we discover about Rupert, for example, is that he is Christian, from his quoting of the Bible, and Margaret (played by Kendall Turner) rather frustratingly brings a voice of relentless feminism and nothing else in the way in which she refers to men and her body in relation to them. I felt that this vast lack of character depth made for a uni-layered plot, although this did improve towards the end of the play.
Furthermore, this lack of depth was highly pertinent to Edward's (Calvin Crawley) character whenever he masturbated in the corner of his cell. I felt that this was an explicit moment that would have been more effective as implicit. To have him talk of women to the women on stage in a vulgar and implicit way, detailing what he would do if he could, would be much more sinister and would better pull through the themes of sin and misogyny. This would have also been more effective for the audience when his penis was cut, for this would have made the audience revel in his pain, and then, as he grew sympathy for Rupert and showed his weaker, more vulnerable side, this would have allowed for a deeper empathy from the audience, heightening the play's sense of horror. However, as it stood, Edward's masturbation simply brought social awkwardness and lewd humour, having little dramatic effect.
I also felt that certain aspects of the text were not fully understood by the actors. There were a few moments where actors would say a line that should clearly have been said in a different way. This was particular of Katie Clement (playing Modesty); for example, for the moment when Modesty explains to Edward that the cryptic letter they have received is written in longhand and that she had taught this to some children she had been looking after when she was 'alive', Clement performed acerbically, hissing her lines at Crawley. I felt this should have been more of a startled and bewildered response as she read the letter to herself, frustrated with Edward's cocky annoyances, as opposed to a comeback. Other suchlike moments took away from the true meaning of the text, I thought.
This brings me on to characterisation. The first thing that strikes me when considering characterisation is the decision to have Rupert crawling on all fours around the stage. Whilst I felt this to be somewhat necessary — what reason would he have to stand in his cell? — and rather symbolic of the fact that his arms and legs would soon be amputated, it was the animalistic quality of this crawling that did not sit well with me. Perhaps this was to show that the time he had endured alone, full of immense anxiety, had made him as though a wild animal, but I do not think this would be a powerful enough reason. As for Calvin Crawley, though a bit too shouty in places, I felt that he was the most refined character out of the four, though this could have certainly been down to the writing's incessant focus upon his character. I did feel that there was a lack of realism, especially towards the end where Edward becomes more sympathetic towards the other prisoners, but he did perform with adequate energy. Kendall Turner, however, I felt to be much too bi-layered in her performance. Either she was shouty or paranoid — both in a rather plastic way. There was a set rhythm she had chosen to perform her character in which made her performance seem unrealistic and forced. She was certainly the most physical of the cast, but I do not believe that this was to her favour. Lastly, Katie Clement. As I mentioned before, there were moments particular to Clement's performance where I found the writing to be misinterpreted. Clement seemed at points to not be sure of what she was saying — or she was too sure and, in fact, erroneous. Other than this, an average performance.
I have already mentioned the set in the introduction to this review: long white tapes dividing the stage into four equal triangles, their points converging Downstage Center. Whilst I felt that this was an efficient use of space and angularity, I was a tad confused by the topography of the cells that these represented. Oftentimes, characters switched cells without any acknowledgement of or confusion about this, which leads me to wonder if these changes were not changes of cells but changes of points of view for the audience. The borders of each cell also seemed completely ignored in transitions where Frankenstein (Christopher Mawson) entered the stage. Characters were able to see each other and physically interact with one another, perhaps meaning that these cells were barred, but this was unclear. In short, an efficient visual but unrefined in its explanation.
In regards to costume, the white shrouds — and, at some points, lack of costume altogether — effectively forced the audience to consider the bodies of the characters, making amputations and operations more effective. The black sleeves used for Rupert's arm amputations were highly effective in inspiring the belief that they had been removed — though he did calmly walk back onto the stage, with amputated legs — but I would note that the bandages should have met with the sleeve, otherwise it's an open wound and the bandages are meaningless. The bloody material on Modesty's abdomen was also effective, alluding to a botch-job surgery in its inelaborateness.
There is not much to say about lighting (operated by Sam Gilham, who also operated sound). It was rather basic — not in a negative way — with natural lighting throughout and blackouts and red washes for transitions. Music (produced by Gareth Rhys Prior) and sound, on the other hand, were used quite prolifically. The Researcher's (Nicole van Niekerk) voiceover at the beginning of the play set the period and feel of the piece very well. However, I did feel that it rapidly lost its effect towards the end due to its repetitiveness. Also, I will add that van Niekerk seemed to stumble on her words, and unedited mouth squelching sounds throughout were very off-putting. I cannot say if these were both intended, although I will say that these should be considered. The repeated sound of gas also worked well. The music successfully created tension and suspense, making use of techno drones and syncopations, and the change of music, from normal scene-change transitions to transitions in which Frankenstein entered the stage to reap from the four bodies, made for a successful change in mood.
I have spoken of transitions quite a lot in this review, and so I feel it is important to detail their impact further. During transitions, it was unclear if we were seeing the characters in their cells in real-time or if we were seeing the actors preparing for the next scene. The exit sign above the door in the theatre space and the bleached white of the shrouds meant that the actors were incredibly visible during blackouts. Whilst one cannot help certain features of the performance space, it is important to note the effect they will have on the performance, and I feel that, to some extent, this was done. However, as the performers are made so visible during these transitions, it is important that they have particular things to do during them. This could have been a minimal physical movement depicting the suffering of the characters or differentiated actions that show the characters' behaviours in their cells. There were also a few moments when the characters were gassed that actors performed becoming unconscious very drastically and unrealistically, sharply falling to the ground, but this was infrequent, and these moments were otherwise effective. The last thing I will say about transitions is that they were unbelievably slow and lengthy at times where they need not have been. This decelerated the momentum of the performance, which is almost never a good thing.
Lacking some realism in places, this performance made otherwise for a very good piece of theatre with a strong premise and pragmatic stage design. I would note, however, that this play's synopsis claims that the play is a dissection of the ethics of the ownership of the human body after death; this I completely disagree with.