‘Be pleasantly surprised by how little you really know of Frankenstein,’ say York horror company Theatre Of The Macabre

Lee Gemmell, left, and Dan Boyle in rehearsal for Theatre Of The Macabre’s Frankenstein. All pictures:  Hannah Jade Robbins

DO you reckon you know everything there is to be known of the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?

“If so, come along and be pleasantly surprised about how little you really know,” say York company Theatre Of The Macabre, introducing the twisted fantasies and grotesque dreamscapes of next week’s York premiere at Theatre@41, Monkgate, on Wednesday.

“Join us as we discover Victor Frankenstein’s innermost fears and misgivings that haunt his troubled mind and how his ungodly experiments defied the Laws of Nature.”

Director Bryan Heeley’s production began life in 2019 and was set to be unfurled at Theatre@41 in April 2020, only to be derailed by the pandemic. “My original cast was halved due to circumstances too bizarre to stretch belief, so in 2020 we had to re-build, which was by no means easy,” he says. “Eventually, however, the play was re-cast and, despite the strict restrictions, began its ‘rebirth’.”

“All the original cast worked at The York Dungeon so it was relatively easy to arrange meetings. For next week’s cast, besides myself as Walton, there’ll be three of the original actors: Dan Boyle as Victor Frankenstein, Hannah Jade Robbins as Elizabeth and Naomi Lombard as Justine.

Gripping scene: Hannah Jade Robbins’ Elizabeth and Lee Gemmell’s Creature

“They’ll be joined by Jess Murray as Henry and the redoubtable Lee Gemmell as the Creature.”

When first conceived, the cast numbered 20-plus. “But it was relatively easy to divide the parts for this production, giving equal parts to everyone except Lee and Dan,” says Bryan.

“I’d worked with Jess before, in Bronzehead Theatre’s The Alchemist, which also featured multi-role parts, so I knew she was capable of this.

“Lee has been a revalation as the Creature, and as I knew the play backwards, I replaced Dan, who was the original Walton. I was determined to share the parts out equally, regardless of the sex of the character and one character Greta impressed me so much, she was given an extra scene.”

Why are we still so fascinated by Frankenstein and his Creature, Bryan? “I’m constantly amazed, when mentioning the name Frankenstein, how many diverse people quote it as their favourite book and the interesting slants they have on the characters,” he says.

Find out the answer to the question above at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from February 2 to 5

“Feminists love it, sc-fi enthusiasts rate it and ‘horror nuts’ like me constantly cite it among their top ten, along with Dracula and The Phantom Of The Opera.”

Then add the medical aspect that prevails throughout the book, says Bryan. “The ‘miracle’ of rebirth has slowly become a reality as science and medicine have uncovered further revelations. So, it’s even more remarkable that Mary Shelley in the 19th century could conceive such unthinkable ideas. How can we fail to not be impressed by such fantastical concepts?”

No longer does the horror genre suffer from the prejudiced perception of being an “inferior artform”. “It now has the legitimacy it rightly deserves,” says Bryan.

“As a child of the 1960s, my staple diet of entertainment gravitated to Hammer Horror films such as Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman and, of course, Frankenstein.

“Such influences are still there to be seen today; just pop along to HMV and listen to diverse people wax lyrical about the latest Zombie epic while ploughing through the shelves marked ‘Horror’ for undiscovered gems.

The caption above receives a tut-tut from the CharlesHutchPress spelling police

“Theatre has flourished at the same time: the likes of Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman In Black, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom Of The Opera, Richard Curtis’s The Rocky Horror Show and Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman’s excellent Ghost Stories are prime examples of this. Even the National Theatre ‘dipped their toes’ with Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein.”

Bryan continues: “The York Dungeon, a fine exponent of the genre, has hosted popular zombie events, which could be classed as live theatre. The pandemic has brought its own particular terrors, yet it was a no-budget short called The Host that generated worldwide acclaim, not least due to participation of York’s own James Swanton as the malevolent spirit. Among the carnage, people still preferred to be shocked.”

Theatre@41’s black-box John Cooper Studio is the perfect theatrical setting for Frankenstein. “We wanted to create a claustrophobic atmosphere to coincide with Victor’s ‘madness’ and Theatre@41 is the ideal space to create such an environment,” says Bryan.

“A thrust-style setting should put our audience close to the action and a few ‘shocks’ on the way will hopefully add an added element to their experience. If we can achieve this then we can go away with a satisfactory feeling and, as the Creature says, ‘rest in peace’.”               

Frankenstein wholly suits a theatrical presentation. “There is nothing so satisfying as taking one’s seat in the theatre, whether it be for a comedy, musical or simply to be shocked,” says Bryan.

“A skilful artist can take you by the hand and lead you a merry dance,” says Theatre Of The Macabre director Bryan Heeley

“A darkened stage invokes our primal fear of the unknown. You have no control of your emotions. A skilful artist can take you by the hand and lead you a merry dance and, somewhere at the back of your mind, you want to go there, no matter what the consequence.

“Frankenstein is such a creature (forgive the pun). You share the emotions of the characters as they pass through their journey and question their motives. You feel invested in the action and leave thinking, ‘would I have done the same thing?’. I have to admit, even though I’ve lived with this project for so long, I still ponder these questions myself.”

One final question demands to be asked: why will next week’s audiences be “pleasantly surprised about how little you really know” about Frankenstein?

“As the old saying goes, ‘there are no original ideas left’, so this question is the trickiest to answer,” concedes Bryan.

Theatre Of The Macabre’s poster for Frankensetin

“I would like to think that by emphasising Victor Frankenstein’s state of mind and his extreme behaviour, I have brought some originality to this production. His actions are for the most part despicable, rash and questionable, despite the events unfolding.

“One could say they are the classic symptoms of a sociopath. His musings are comparable to Hamlet and it’s no coincidence that Shakespeare’s play is quoted in this production – and we all know how that ended.

“But we must also remember they are actions sanctioned by Mary Shelley herself and I’m trying to be faithful to her while adding my own spin. I leave it to the audience to judge and ultimately decide.”  

Theatre Of The Macabre in Frankenstein, Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, February 2 to 5, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.

Looking ahead

AN offshoot of the Theatre Of The Macabre company regularly presents a Halloween Spectacular in Budapest, Hungary. “It is hoped, in the future, to organise a possible production there,” says Bryan Heeley.