Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s debut novel has become so iconic in Western culture that the word “Frankenstein” is now used pejoratively to describe any scientific or technological advance which either brings unforeseen dangers in its wake or breaks long-established taboos. Quite deliberately, though, there’s a strong sense of Mary’s original monster in Sandy Thomson’s new play, which she has both written and directed: powerful, lumbering but resolutely fascinating—if not always for the right reasons.
There is much in Mary’s story for Thomson to get her teeth into as both writer and director
Certainly, this is a production that aims for the epic while remaining resolutely grounded in the local, with Thomson leaping on the little-known fact that, in 1812, the then-14- year-old Mary was sent north by her widowed father (the philosopher and novelist William Godwin) to live with the Baxter family in Dundee; a family they had no obvious connections with beyond the fact that they were “wealthy enough to be considered eccentric”, especially concerning their radical ideas around the education and equality of women. However, this eccentricity proves to be a limited protection once society turns nasty.
There is much in Mary’s story for Thomson to get her teeth into as both writer and director; it’s clear that she believes Mary’s two year Dundonian sojourn with the Baxters—and, in particular, the forthright Marianne (played by Irene Macdougall, with her usual fire and sensitivity)—was a life-enhancing experience, and a necessary eye-opener to the suffocating, potentially deadly excesses of 19th century patriarchy. When you add in a golden opportunity to quote the writings of Mary’s mother, the pioneering feminist and educationist Mary Wollstonecraft, there’s enough here for a genuinely emotive, thought-provoking piece of theatre.
Yet this isn’t enough for Thomson, who contrasts 1812 with the fictional story of 21st century Dundee teenager Roxanne Walker (a taut Rebekah Lumsden). One of the “popular” boy in her class has taken a semi-naked photograph of her, unconscious after a vodka-fuelled party, and posted it on social media—the “Frankenstein” side of the internet, as you will. Thanks to support from pink-haired- don’t-care librarian Libby (the fourth-wall- breaking Elaine Stirrat), Roxanne finds the inner strength to stand up for herself, but this already feels like an important story that’s been done better, elsewhere.
A truly impressive, buzzing cast (not least Eilidh McCormick as Mary) and beautifully-lit staging can’t distract from the occasionally glacially slow progression of both narratives, or the migraine-inducing soundscape and choreography employed to signify the shift from one to the other. Arguably, these are two thematically similar plays that, often with little subtly (not least Roxanne's realisation that “Maybe I need a monster.”), are unfortunately entwined to little obvious thematic benefit for either.