Interview: Ross McGregor, Frankenstein

Arrows & Traps were last seen at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre in February with their acclaimed production of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Now they’ve turned their attention to another classic novel: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

“It’s the 200 year anniversary of Mary Shelley’s original novel, so it seemed a great time to tackle the piece,” says director and writer Ross McGregor. “Frankenstein is so iconic as well, it’s ingrained in our literary and cinematic history, and there’s been over 100 different adaptations both on stage and screen. It’s such a flexible and deep piece of literature – I found the ideas that Shelley talks about in the novel to be fascinating and worthy of dramatic exploration. Plus, it’s just so much fun to do. There’s literally a scene when a monster made of dead people comes to life. You don’t get that in Alan Ayckbourn.”

Frankenstein is the eleventh show from Arrows & Traps, known for their innovative adaptations of literary classics – and it could be their most ambitious project yet. “In many ways, it has all the hallmarks of an Arrows show: the tight ensemble work, the physical pieces, the fluid staging and the excitement of seeing a classic story told in a new, and hopefully interesting, way,” says Ross. “What makes Frankenstein different from anything we’ve done before is that we’re telling three stories at once. Victor’s, The Creature’s, but also Mary Shelley’s. It’s a triple narrative all being told simultaneously, which makes for some exciting viewing.

“Also, this is the first production that I’ve actually written myself, as well as directing it, so rehearsals have been a voyage of discovery in terms of staging the piece, finding what works, what needs clarifying, and how best to tell the stories we want to tell. It’s been a fascinating and gruelling process of vision and revision. I’m slowly learning the importance of being able to kill your darlings.

“There are moments when it is as though the ghosts in my head are literally manifesting in front of me, which is very moving and humbling, and there is always a great relief when a particular bit or a specific scene is rehearsed and it ‘works’. So often what might look acceptable on paper doesn’t then work in performance, so it’s always lovely to see something that translates and makes the leap. The cast is bringing an awful lot to the roles though, and I’m constantly surprised by all the new layers they’re discovering. It’s been a joy to be involved in.”

Ross explains that in his research for the show, he became fascinated by the story of Mary Shelley: “Her world was filled with characters such as Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, her father William Godwin, her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, her sisters Jane and Fanny, Shelley’s wife Harriet – all of these people would have made a great play in their own right – but what principally struck me was the notion of all the strange parallels in her own life to Frankenstein. Now Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was nineteen, and although there were definitely things in her childhood that inspired her to write the book, her subsequent life after the novel’s publication shared many strange links to the book, almost as though she cursed herself by writing it. The more I delved into the real story around Frankenstein, the more I wanted to include it in the play.

“So yes, Mary is a main character in the show. And not just as a narrator, she has a part to play in it. She’s older now, suffering from a terminal brain tumour in fact, and is tormented by something that happened in her youth. Something that ties directly into Frankenstein. And so as we see the story of Victor and his Creature unfold, we also see Mary relive her past, with the cast playing roles in both worlds, leaping from one timeline to the other. It’s something of a rollercoaster to watch. I’m very excited about it.”

In adapting the novel, Ross encountered various challenges – one of which was sidestepping the traditional Hollywood image of Frankenstein’s monster. “Initially, I was very faithful,” he explains. “I had always seen the Creature as this lumbering, bolts in the neck, flat-headed lummox that groaned at people, but in the novel, he’s very graceful and agile. The Creature in the novel is very eloquent and possibly as smart as his creator. I wanted to try and mimic that, because I hadn’t found a version where that had ever been attempted.

“In the novel also, there’s no motivation for Victor’s need to create this monster – he just does it because he can. So I knew I wanted to humanise Victor and make him more sympathetic, more flawed, more human, more understandably motivated. So it’s been about balancing those two things. Also, the novel itself isn’t very dramatic and doesn’t lend itself easily to being dramatised. The iconic bits that you probably think of when you think of ‘Frankenstein’ are not from the novel. There’s no ‘IT’S ALIVE!’, there’s no character called Igor, there’s not even any mention of the Creature being scarred or covered in stitches or bolts. All of that is from the films.

“The novel concerns itself with ideas of nature versus nurture, of the perils of parenthood and the isolation caused by abandonment. The hubris of genius. So in adapting it, I have tried to stay true to Mary Shelley’s vision, whilst constructing something that stands on its own two feet as a piece of theatre. And from being in rehearsal, I can certainly tell you we’re making something inherently theatrical.”

The show’s cast includes a mix of Arrows veterans and new recruits: “The brilliant Christopher Tester plays Victor Frankenstein; Arrows fans may recall his recent performance as Raskolnikov in our last production Crime and Punishment, for which he was nominated for an Off West End Award for Best Male. We have the incredibly talented Cornelia Baumann returning to play Mary Shelley, after her recent turn as Olivia and Emilia in our repertory Shakespeare season of Twelfth Night and Othello last year, and we are honoured to have our resident movement director genius Will Pinchin playing the Creature, which I’m so excited about as I’ve wanted to get Will on stage in one of our shows for years. 

“We have Philip Ridout, of this year’s festival circuit hit Dogged fame, playing William Godwin, and recent Oxford School of Drama graduate Victoria Llewellyn playing Elizabeth Lavenza. I recently had the honour of directing for Fourth Monkey Theatre Company as part of their One Year Actor Training program so we’ve got three of their very talented graduates involved: Zoe Dales playing Agatha, Beatrice Vincent playing Fanny Imlay and Oliver Brassell playing Henry Clerval. It is an honour to have all these guys involved and the benefit of knowing who the cast were when the script was still under construction was that I could write it with them in mind and tailor it to them.”

With Halloween just around the corner, theatregoers in search of something a bit scary are likely to have plenty of options – so why should we book to see Frankenstein? Over to the writer: “It’s a gothic steampunk horror set in two different timelines, playing just before Halloween, in one of London’s most iconic and welcoming fringe venues, by a company that cares greatly for the source material and has spent the last three years working to hone their skills and push fringe theatre to the limit of what it can do in terms of ensemble, spectacle and excitement. Frankenstein is quite scary, quite funny, quite sad, and very very exciting. I’d definitely go, and I’m rubbish with scary things.”

Frankenstein opens at the Brockley Jack on 26th September, continuing until 21st October, followed by a brief run at Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford from 2nd-4th November.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s