Next week we welcome Dippermouth and James Swanton to Theatre503, as they explore a new adaptation of the Gothic Classic – Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. James Swanton – actor and writer for ‘Frankensetin’s Creature’ – had this to say on the creation of this piece of new writing…
I wrote the body of Frankenstein’s Creature almost three years ago. My last one-man play, Charles Dickens’ Sikes & Nancy, was then in its infancy. Sikes & Nancy has since propelled me up and down the country and into the West End. Yet always in the role of Dickens’ servant, and, for the performance’s duration, his representative on earth. Frankenstein’s Creatureis my liberation from Dickens: as well as embodying a universe on the stage, I am at last that universe’s creator.
I’ve tempered this hubris by keeping to the framework of Mary Shelley’s novel. The process of adaptation has been a very pure one. In writing, I allowed new details to introduce themselves, but never where they felt forced. But whilst the script is faithful to Shelley’s spirit – or so I believe – there’s not a single sentence from her novel there. At this distance, the script feels like it was written by someone else again. Which is proving healthy in rehearsal.
Frankenstein’s Creature is a play that embraces transformation; the thrill of incarnating an otherworldly being for over an hour. In the past, transformation has been my ideal in acting. Thus the frantic monopolyloguing; the commitment to grotesquerie; the not infrequent gender-swapping – and Sikes & Nancy included all of these. On a base physical level, the Creature demands transformation. But, psychologically and emotionally, I’m discovering (rediscovering) that the play is more concerned more with enmeshment. Our desire to become one with other people; the terror of it. The most purely human experience, in fact: that difficulty in giving ourselves over to other human beings. Not for nothing is this a one-man play. In life, the best solution lies in relaxing into our own skins. This should be an acting transformation tempered with simplicity then; even a lightness.
For this Creature is all lightness, a considerable divergence from the filmic stereotype. Which is by no means the same as the filmic reality: Karloff’s Monster is towering in its simplicity. This Creature is a hypersensitive, even narcissistic being. Like some blithering Romantic poet, his tragedy may be that of someone who feels everything too acutely. The Creature’s tragedy is so uniform, so in the thrall of his hypersensitive capacity, that it ceases to feel grounded at all. You try to catch hold of it; you catch only air. When you enter the mindset of the alien – he who is cast out – you realise that you can’t blast out your messages with full-frontal anger. As alien, you make your meaning with exquisite subtlety – you wheedle, you worm, you quietly unsettle. A call for more lightness; for writing on air.
Yet for all this airy aspiration, Frankenstein’s Creature remains a chance to revel in mud and in muck. The play advances a character who is, in most respects, sickening: a life story in which iniquity and perversity are persistently framed as beauty. Or is it the other way around? We read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis with compassion nowadays; if anything, with too much compassion. Yet had the letter fallen into the hands of Wilde’s persecutors, it would have been regarded like a tract from Jimmy Savile.
Wilde and Savile both had the gift of insinuating themselves into society. Not so the Creature. He is the ultimate outsider. Is this a figure who can understand, let alone meaningfully want humanity? We often try to complete the Beast with a Beauty. But this may go no further than fairytales. The Beast stands alone. And perhaps he goes further still, embracing his ugliness as superior. The undesirable parading their most undesirable facets as radiant – this is the purest definition of the grotesque I know. The Creature should encourage us to look away. But we must feel compelled to probe his mystery.
Perhaps the real curse falls on the physically bland, the physically unremarkable. As cheated of love as the ugly may be, they are backed into a corner that proves decisive. Many Great Men have been ugly. And it goes without saying that they have the best stories.