Wednesday 14 November 2018

The doctor's dilemma: mad or bad?

A 21st century Frankenstein is eerily relevant

Louis Lovett puts in a storming performance as both the Monster and his creator in 'Franknstn'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Louis Lovett puts in a storming performance as both the Monster and his creator in 'Franknstn'. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Emer O'Kelly

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the reader is left outside the terrifying framework - it is the naval captain who rescues the dying doctor in the vastnesses of the Arctic who hears the tale from Frankenstein's lips.

In Franknstn, Michael West's adaptation for Theatre Lovett (on the Peacock stage), Victor Franknstn confronts his own audience, from what turns out to be his prison cell. He is incarcerated for the murders of three people, including his own beautiful bride.

And he accepts the blame, while denying that he is a "monster". He tried to save Elisabeth, he insists. But the guilt is his: it was he who created the Monster who actually did carry out the murders, the massive, imperfect human being who bore the doctor's DNA thanks to his fanatical experiments in chemistry. And, at a stroke, West creates a vision even more hideous than Shelley's - with stem cell research, he suggests, we are well on the road to a reality of monster creation, even as we search to create perfection.

Traced and confronted by his creator, the escaped Monster weeps piteously: it is anguish and desperation that motivate him, not the desire to kill. Hence the doctor's fatal agreement to create a mate to share the Monster's desolation. Succeeding, Franknstn realises, too late, that she is a "warm-blooded cradle for his lust". And when the poor Monster finally kills the doctor's wife, Franknstn has to watch him "squat over her", presumably in violation.

The ultimate irony comes with Victor Franknstn accepting his incarceration (in a lunatic asylum?) or a cell awaiting execution. And yet he howls for freedom - the Monster is still out there, he must be freed to find and destroy him.

The play is short but it has nerve-tingling relevance, marvellously brought to life in Louis Lovett's storming performance as both the Monster and his haunted creator. He is directed by Muireann Ahern in a set by Ger Clancy which subtly suggests both laboratory and morgue. It's splendidly lit by Sarah Jane Shiels, and sound and music are by Dunk Murphy.

Franknstn is not recommended (wisely!) for under-16s.

*******

"A West Side Story love story on the sidewalk,/a whoop of police sirens, car alarms/unanimous as in a California quake/while most lay dreaming in each other's arms."

It's Out There, one of the poems in Derek Mahon's New York Time, a version of his The Hudson Letter (published originally in 1995). It is the essence of New York, an insider's view from an outsider, as Mahon was, and you can hear the city and its influence in every line, whether tranquil, ironic, distressed or alienated.

The 18 poems have been edited and newly published by Peter Fallon of Gallery Press, and they bring alive the melancholic awareness of a poet's life as he distils experience into the purity of art. Given sound, there could, of course, be a danger the interpretation could jar against the intensely personal pleasure of the reader's own nurturing of the words. But when the reader/performer is Stephen Rea, consummate actor, and Mahon's fellow Northern Ireland man, there is just a deeper understanding of the poet's voice - almost, one feels, as though one were listening to his own cadences.

Mahon sees himself as a "chaste convalescent(s) from an exigent world" as he contemplates the New York waterfront, "and I recall/my 10-year-old delight/at the launch of a P&O liner in Belfast,/all howling 'O God, Our Help in Ages Past',/tugs hooting block and tackle thundering into the tide" as he tries to "imagine our millennium". Now, more than 30 years after watching the flotsam in the oily water, he knows what it has brought for the once little boy and his adult, more wary self.

It's not all melancholia, of course; the poem which follows Waterfront is To Mrs Moore at Inishannon, an imagined letter in 1895 from a newly arrived immigrant daughter to her mother. She's "in a fine house a short step from Washington Square,/Protestants, mind you, and a bit serious/ much like the Bandon sort, not crack like us (…..) in any case the whole country's under age."

But London Time and Chinatown for his daughter and son, have the wisdom of age as their father gives them a context for life in the amused recognition of their emergent uniqueness: "A precocious feminist, already at the age of five/contemptuous of your raggedy dolls, derisive/but seerious of course, you were a scream" and for his son "but I recognise your stratagems of evasion/for I too was young and morose in youth/a frightful little shit to tell the truth."

Through those and reflections on subjects as varied as Yeats, Ovid, Auden and Fay Wray's tears for King Kong, the poems are a song for wisdom, a combination of acceptance and anger, given an almost eviscerating clarity through poetic vision. And delivered as they were by Rea at the Kilkenny Arts Festival, embellished by a specially composed musical score from Neil Martin played by Brian Connor, the word which sprang to mind while experiencing the performance was "privilege".

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