Venue reviews: Mary Shelley at Maddermarket Theatre

October is the season of all that is spooky and what better an author with whom to celebrate this time of year than the queen of horror herself, Mary Shelley. Strangely, there was clearly a conscious decision in a play about her life not to include perhaps the best-known part of it: that fateful weekend at Lake Geneva where she came up with the idea for Frankenstein. Instead, this play focuses much more on the areas of her life that most people would not have known about.

The play starts before she has even met Percy Bysshe Shelley, when she is still Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin, and explores her family dynamics as she navigates difficult relationships with her father, stepmother and two sisters. Her family dramas are definitely the main focus of the play as we see her relationships devolve as she gets closer to Shelley, and the toll various debts take on all the characters. The Godwin family definitely aren’t the easiest to deal with, with plenty of adultery, unplanned pregnancies and suicides. Jeremy Kyle, eat your heart out!

However, this wasn’t merely a melodrama; in order to really get into the mind of the central character the theatre employed interesting techniques where the other characters externalise her internal conflicts by essentially yelling at her. The staging was an inspired use of the space, with a pillar of books signifying the Godwin home and a semi-translucent screen with differing images to represent the various spaces the play inhabits.

The screen was also used effectively when the actors moved behind it as you could see their silhouettes. At one point the screen had waves projected onto it as the characters stood behind to produce the illusion that they were travelling by sea. Though there was the occasional stumbling over lines, the actors were good on the whole with some stand out performances. The actor playing William Godwin, Mary’s father, was a personal favourite as his delivery in scenes of conflict, as well as ones of a more tender nature with Mary, were extremely emotive and impassioned. However, Mrs Godwin was clearly the audience’s favourite, as she provided the more comedic elements of the play; her larger than life stage presence consistently brought laughs.

Though the play had some excellent elements there were some odd creative choices, an example being the music. It consisted of classical renditions of modern songs, such as Taylor Swift’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ and Rag’n’Bone Man’s ‘Human’ being played in brief interludes between scenes. The contemporary choice of music broke away from the sense of time and place within the play, which became distracting and transported us out of the action. The director also clearly had a soft spot for ‘Hurt’ by Johnny Cash, as the first few bars of the song were played over and over in an orchestral style. Another issue was the pacing, as some insignificant moments dragged whereas seemingly important events were skipped over.

Though it was clearly a creative choice to miss out any mention of Frankenstein it felt like there was something missing to the narrative, when it could have given the play a direction. We both came away with mixed feelings about this production, but if you’re interested in the life of one of Britain’s most famous female authors it is definitely worth seeing.

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Emily Taithe and Eva Wakeford

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July 2021
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