First published in The Times, Thursday April 27 2017
The tale of how Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein in a waking dream while staying at Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 is almost as familiar as the plot of the novel itself. Less well known is the author’s connection with the city of Dundee, where the 14-year-old Shelley (née Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) spent several months recuperating from illness in 1812.
Sandy Thomson uses this biographical footnote as the foundation for a new collaboration between the Dundee Rep and Poorboy ensembles. The play, which Thomson writes and directs, is certainly ambitious in its scope, weaving together Mary’s (Eilidh McCormick) spell with the wealthy, socially progressive Baxter family with a contemporary strand in which teenager Roxanne (Rebekah Lumsden) finds herself humiliated and bullied when a classmate takes a topless photo of her at a party and posts it online.
Pic: Jane Hobson
These two young women may belong to different epochs but Thomson shows how each must dig deep in order to surmount the patriarchal orthodoxies of their day. Mary’s eventful stay with the Baxters, notably Marianne (Irene MacDougall), a campaigner for women’s rights in the vein of Shelley’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, immediately precedes her scandalous elopement with Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet. Roxanne, meanwhile, is encouraged to fight back against her tormenters by a new friend, the punkish, book-loving librarian Liberty Smith (Elaine Stirrat).
The intersection of these two lives comes about when Roxanne uses a school talk on Mary’s time in Dundee to reassert control over her own body, image and identity. It’s a contrivance that feels awkward, and in Thomson’s production, the two parts of the narrative never make for entirely easy bedfellows. The 19th century strand, in which Mary helps a young American who has escaped from forced service in the Royal Navy, is compelling enough in its own right. The fictional portion of Thomson’s script frequently gets bogged down in exposition and overstatement. The recurring device of having the supporting cast of selfie-obsessed teenagers (played by an ensemble of local young people) freeze in tableau so the audience can take pictures feels a clumsy addition to an already overstuffed production.
Pic: Jane Hobson
While Thomson’s play would undoubtedly benefit from a greedier edit, her production contains some genuinely exciting moments, such as the climactic chase scene that makes full use of Natasha Jenkins’s multi-levelled set design, and Mike Robertson beautifully lights the whole show. McCormick and Lumsden are strong and touching in the leading roles, ably backed up by the large supporting cast.