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Making a monster: Norwich play about creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

PUBLISHED: 15:11 10 January 2018 | UPDATED: 16:16 10 January 2018

Emma Stephenson (Mary Shelley), Sam Todd (Percy Shelley), Phillip Rowe (Lord Byron) and Verity Roat (Claire Claremont) in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts

Emma Stephenson (Mary Shelley), Sam Todd (Percy Shelley), Phillip Rowe (Lord Byron) and Verity Roat (Claire Claremont) in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts

Reflective Arts

The 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s great Gothic novel is being marked by the Sewell Barn Theatre in Norwich with Blood and Ice, a play about the story of its creation.

Emma Stephenson (Mary Shelley) and Sam Todd (Percy Shelley)  in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts Emma Stephenson (Mary Shelley) and Sam Todd (Percy Shelley) in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts

The 200th anniversary of the monstrous creation at the heart of the great Gothic novel Frankenstein is being celebrated in 2018.

The first edition of Mary Shelley’s epic tale of darkness, despair and the human condition was published (anonymously) in January 1818.

The genre of Gothic horror was born on the stormy shores of Lake Geneva, where Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Bryon competed to write stirring and unnatural tales.

The weather was bad and so the group spent much of their time reading and writing together. They particularly enjoyed working their way through Fantasmagoriana, a collection of German ghost stories.

Emma Stephenson (Mary Shelley) and Phillip Rowe (Lord Byron) in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts Emma Stephenson (Mary Shelley) and Phillip Rowe (Lord Byron) in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts

The story Mary composed, which later became Frankenstein, drew on recent scientific progress of the time and the writings of Luigi Galvani.

Galvani was a physicist who had discovered that muscles in human and animal tissue conduct and react to electricity. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus was published two years later.

Now to mark the anniversary Norwich’s Sewell Barn Theatre is staging Liz Lochhead’s play Blood and Ice, which weaves the tragic events of Mary’s life into the fabric of her creation.

It is a play that explores the nature of female creativity in this dark evocation of the romance between Mary and Percy Shelley.

Emma Stephenson as Mary Shelley  in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts Emma Stephenson as Mary Shelley in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts

In the play the Shelleys join Lord Byron and his mistress Claire Clairmont at Lake Geneva. Young, carefree, and in love, Mary agrees to a bet to see who in their intimate group can produce the most horrifying tale. But as the dark shadow of reality creeps ever closer, she begins to realise that the most chilling story of them all might just be her own.

“We’ve taken Liz Lochhead’s script, which is superb in itself, and we’ve pushed it one step further” explains the play’s director Sabrina Poole.

“Like her novel, Mary Shelley was darkly fascinating and that is exactly what you will see on stage. Every one of the characters in Blood and Ice is on the edge of something, be it greatness or failure.

“A simple change of heart, a bad or a good decision, could have dramatically altered their lives – and indeed the course of history – and you find yourself willing them to do just that. You will want to get up and throttle a character one moment only to embrace them the next.”

Phillip Rowe (Lord Byron) and and Verity Roat (Claire Claremont) in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts Phillip Rowe (Lord Byron) and and Verity Roat (Claire Claremont) in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts

Percy Shelley drowned in a storm whilst sailing near Italy in 1822. Mary was only 24 and never remarried. She wrote many other books, as well as Frankenstein. Her 1823 novel Valperga, was a fictionalised account of the 14th Century despot Castracani, who forces the woman he loves to choose between love and political freedom. She chooses freedom. The Last Man was an early science fiction novel, set in a post-apocalytic world. She also wrote many travel novels, was an accomplished editor, and was instrumental in editing and publishing many of the published collections of her husband’s writing.

However she will forever be synonymous with Frankenstein which has become part of global popular culture and been the subject of hundreds of theatrical, film and literary re-interpretations, as well as inspiring just about every sci-fi cautionary tale against techno-science run amok.

Despite this there is the regular mix-up that Frankenstein was the original ‘mad scientist’ who created humanoid life from chemistry, alchemy and spare body parts, not the name of the monster itself.

The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin, and mother philosopher and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary had an unusual upbringing that feed into the themes of her most famous work.

Emma Stephenson (Mary Shelley). Sam Todd (Percy Shelley), Phillip Rowe (Lord Byron) and Verity Roat (Claire Claremont) in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts Emma Stephenson (Mary Shelley). Sam Todd (Percy Shelley), Phillip Rowe (Lord Byron) and Verity Roat (Claire Claremont) in Blood and Ice. Photo: Sean Owen/Reflective Arts

Sabrina Poole said: “The daughter of two very logical age of reason philosophers. She was taken to public dissections, scientific lectures and she would have seen bodies being dissected and she really interested in all that. But she got really swept up by Percy Shelley and Lord Byron and people like Keats and the romantic poet movement. So Frankenstein is a mix of these two worlds colliding and not merging in perhaps the way Mary wanted them to.”

Many events are planned to celebrate Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary. Sabrina, the newest and youngest director at the Sewell Barn, has not only played the role of Percy Shelley but also directed a production about him at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – where Blood and Ice was first staged.

In this Sewell Barn Theatre production the rich poetic language of the original novel will be brought to life by a cast that includes Mary Shelley played by young lead Emma Stephenson, with Sam Todd as her eccentric dreamer husband, Percy Shelley.

Verity Roat plays Mary’s vexatious step-sister Claire Clairmont who constantly pesters the maid Elise, Rebekah Oelrichs, to “make her beautiful” for the darkly smouldering presence of Lord Byron, Phillip Rowe. Dawn Brindle and Greg Lindsay-Smith together play the role of the mysterious Creature that haunts its creator, demanding answers to the questions that plague its existence.

• Blood and Ice is at Sewell Barn Theatre, Constitution Hill, Norwich, January 11-13, 17-20, 7.30pm, 2.30pm Jan 20, £9 (£7 cons), 01603 626414, sewellbarn.org.uk

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