Shelley Theatre, Boscombe
18 May 2018
Review by Chris Low
A number of powerful themes are at the heart of Frankenstein, the new play by John Foster, based on Mary Shelley’s classic novel. Chief amongst these is the topic of science and technology, and its role in furthering, or impeding, the onward progress of humankind. The drama opens with scientist Frankie setting the narrative context, outlining major global threats to humanity such as chemical warfare, and destruction of the environment.
Frankie argues that it is only in continued scientific exploration that humans can eventually find a solution to these threats and preserve the species. Using methods such as stem cell research, Frankie has manufactured an artificial being, one that is genetically and physically enhanced far beyond the level of a normal human. The scientists bestow upon her the name Angel, fitting for a group of people who have, in effect, played God in ‘creating’ a sentient person.
However, is Angel a real person, with genuine emotions, or simply a functional object, there to serve others’ needs?
Ideas about what it means to be human, and what constitutes a person, permeate throughout the play. At the start, Frankie’s colleagues Eris and Xero debate whether to refer to Angel as a ‘she’ or ‘it’. Eris, it is revealed, has had internal reservations about the moral ethics of his job; however, he is still firm in his assertion that Angel is no more than a “designer organism” who “belongs to all of us. We own her”. On awakening into consciousness, Angel displays childlike wonder at the world around her; she is confused at experiencing tears, and later gazes in delight at the sea: “Beautiful.”
Despite these apparently humanizing characteristics, the audience, and Angel herself, never forget that she is not ‘normal’. As Frankie admits, the scientists have underestimated Angel’s intelligence; for instance, she quickly realises that the ‘memories’ in her mind are simply implants: “other lives, not mine, not me.’ Later, she angrily confronts Frankie with the declaration that she is “not female, not woman”. It is this furious revelation that will lead Angel to her eventual murderous rampage, as she turns the tables of power against her creators.
All four actors in the cast are well-suited to their roles; Frank Leon and Seth Tonkin shine as the duo Eris and Xero who alternately bicker, joke and seriously discuss their jobs and the ramifications involved.
Frankie is portrayed vividly by Neelam Parmar, skilfully inhabiting her character’s arc from resolved and passionately committed scientist, to a woman conflicted by her feelings both maternal and sexual for her ‘creation’. As Angel, Emily Rowan confidently presents a being who inspires devotion, pity, and eventually dread and terror in those around her. With precision and pathos, she shows Angel’s agony at being trapped between worlds, her desperate yearning for an identity, and eventual cold-eyed ruthlessness in exacting retribution.
Producer and director Charmaine K Parkin has employed a starkly effective production design, emphasizing both the dynamism and nuances of the actors’ performances.
The white sheet that is draped across the stage at the play’s start hides a figure that will turn out to be Angel; as she awakens, she struggles to be free of it, as she will later struggle for an identity. Sheets are closely linked with idea of maternity; at the start, Frankie gathers a white sheet into her clothing to signify her pregnancy.
Masks are used as a constant symbol of identity and reality vs deception; a masked Angel stands stage right as Frankie delivers her opening monologue, and the being is later given a mask by Xero to help her to feign being human.
Music is used sparingly yet effectively with dance to heighten atmosphere and punctuate action.
One of Angel’s final lines, furiously delivered to Frankie is, “Give me my life, or I take yours.” Angel’s demand for a lover and companion shows that the relationship of control and authority between the scientists and their creation has come full circle; she is now the one who ‘owns’ them.
John Foster’s play leaves the audience with no easy answers, but his fine-tuned and visceral writing, together with the quartet of fine performances, ensure that there will be much to reflect on.
Frankenstein premiered at the Shelley Theatre in Boscombe on 18 of May. It is now on tour across the South, with venue and ticket details found via www.sisata.co.uk