When she was just 18 years old, Mary Shelley created ‘Frankenstein’, the Gothic horror story of a Swiss scientist summoning life from the dead.
Despite that novel’s now iconic status, Mary’s own tale is still far less well known. For much of her life she was overshadowed by the stories of others: she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, the ‘other woman’ to married poet Percy Byshe Shelley, and creator of a monster that dominated her writing for the rest of her life.
As if to counteract that, Liz Lochhead’s dialogue-heavy 2003 play ‘Blood and Ice’, which opens the 2019 run at Progress Theatre this week, puts Mary’s life front and centre.
The play opens with an older, widowed Mary haunted by memories and monsters, who here take physical form as a series of black-clad shadows who judder unnervingly around her as if in movement class. They’re chased away only by the animalistic Creature (Juliet England) who demands truth with menaces: “why did you create me, Frankenstein?” its constant growling refrain.
Told largely through flashbacks, the rest of the play shows us Mary’s life centred around her creation of ‘Frankenstein’, at the 1816 Geneva house-party where Mary, along with her lover Percy Byshe Shelley, Lord Byron and Mary’s half-sister Claire pass a summer of endless rain by challenging each other to see who can come up with the scariest ghost story.
Although Mary’s novel is known for being wild and Gothic, Debora Rochfort as the young Mary is rigidly controlled and cautious. Mary doesn’t want to take part in writing a story. The monster is almost wrestled from her by a dream; a life of tragedy and pain summoned into the shape of Frankenstein’s monster.
In real life, Mary’s mother died after childbirth, her father disowned her and her five children all died either in childbirth or as infants. During the play we hear through letters of the deaths of Percy’s first wife by suicide, her husband Percy who drowned at 29 and finally Lord Byron by fever.
Through Ali Carroll as the the older, widowed incarnation of Mary, we see a troubled, disillusioned woman, clearly haunted by all that death and by her own role as a creator and as a creation. It’s not exactly cheery stuff, so brace yourself for anguish.
As if to balance all that torment, the flashbacks have almost the feel of a Sunday TV period drama to them as the hedonistic party of four tour Europe avoiding scandal and creating scandal. It’s all brandy on the chaise lounge, poetry readings after dinner and a light spot of talking down to the help – Francesca Alfano is determined and strong as the maid Elise faced with Byron’s attempts at intimidation.
Percy Byshe Shelley (played with a cheeky wink of a performance by Nico Dombay) is playful, whimsical and itching to run off to his sailboat. Caught in his romantic poetry, he doesn’t seem to recognise Mary’s deep pain.
Max Carter copes admirably with the long, often patronising lectures Lord Byron intones upon the group, managing to keep our attention through some tough philosophical language. His Byron is jaded, cynical and looking for distraction.
He finds it in Claire Clairmont, who spends most of her time fawning after her half sister Mary or running behind Lord Byron while he treats her like a plaything. She’s a frustrating character, yet Caroline White brings a romantic, endearing and almost childlike wonder to Claire.
The setting is stark and bare, with a minimalist white stage, chaise lounge and writing desk, at which older Mary sits almost throughout. This has the advantage of not distracting us from those dense passages of dialogue and Lord Byron’s many long ponderings, but it does lack Gothic enchantment and atmosphere at times. Instead that is picked up by vivid red lighting and a suitably moody soundscape reflecting Mary’s fractured mind.
With this production of ‘Blood and Ice’, director Matthew Beswick tells the story behind the creation of Frankenstein in a restrained but vivid way. It brings the life of its creator, Mary Shelley, out of the shadows.