BLOOD AND ICE: A play about the creator of Frankenstein would seem an excellent way to get into the Halloween mood. Premiering in Australia at Chapel off Chapel, PMD Productions’'Blood and Ice’ by Liz Lochhead explores the tumultuous and tragic life of Mary Shelley and the extraordinary people who influenced her.
A play about the creator of Frankenstein would seem an excellent way to get into the Halloween mood. Premiering in Australia at Chapel off Chapel, PMD Productions’ ‘Blood and Ice’ by Liz Lochhead explores the tumultuous and tragic life of Mary Shelley and the extraordinary people who influenced her.
The core of the story is the infamous summer of 1816, the ‘Year without a Summer’ when eighteen-year-old Mary Godwin (Kellie Tori), her lover the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly (Eoin O’Connell), and her step-sister Clare Clairmont (Lauren-Anne Kempster) joined Lord Byron (Luke Lennox) and John Polidori at Lake Genoa in Switzerland. As a means of entertaining themselves during the largely dreary weather, Byron issued a legendary challenge to see who could write the most terrifying ghost story. Mary’s answer was Frankenstein, published anonymously in 1818. While The play looks back at this summer and other events from some years in the future when Mary is haunted by her own creation, by her guilt at events and scandals that surrounded her romance with Shelley, and the many tragedies that followed. Through flashbacks and dream-like soliloquies Mary takes us to a time when she was passionate and idealistic in stark contrast to a present where she is near broken, grief-stricken and demoralised.
Lochhead’s play revised numerous times since its first production in 1982 is working with extraordinary stuff, and had me googling these fascinating historic figures as soon as I could. What’s more, these are people who seem to have embodied the conflict of intellectual fervour with the social norms of the period, of Romanticism and Enlightment and who lived lives of sex, drugs and passionate philosophical discussion. It was a world where the men got around, the women got pregnant and everyone seemed to die tragically.
But this is a problematic play. Heavy in gothic themes but not on plot, every scene has to be worked to push the emotional extremes and force out a dramatic arc. The journey is very much Mary’s, created not through direct conflict with the other characters but through the circumstances she lives through. Mary’s internal struggle and self delusion, as she tries to reconcile the views of her famous parents and the reality of her own behaviour and its consequences, is possibly the most demanding component of the play. The complex subtext and emotional and chronological jumps strain the actors while the unrelenting melodrama drains the realism that could ultimately give the work more emotional power. This production seems to exacerbates its gothic elements, pushing for over-acting, excessively dramatic lighting and a groaning soundscape of effects and ‘the monster’s’ voice. While the lows are hit hard, the highs miss the mark making for a less dynamic journey.
In the production notes it says that Lochhead thought that ‘in order for the play to work the actors but be young, gorgeous, charming human and vulnerable’ and certainly the casting reflects this.
Kellie Tori, as Mary Shelley, has a demanding role that requires her to rapidly shift between grief and blissful unknowing, vying for our sympathy while largely occupying the moral high ground. Tori finds both the early girlish innocence and wretched grief in Mary, and delivers a powerful final scene. She is also able to convey Mary’s coldness and entrenched class attitudes, which are well drawn out in a dramatic scene with her long suffering maid, Elise, played convincingly by Lauren Smith. Smith creates a deep sympathy for her character’s treatment, particularly in a scene where she is the butt of Lord Byron’s taunts in a perverse sexually charged power game with Mary.
Eoin O’Connell provides a charming nude saunter across stage as Percy Shelley but his portrayal of Shelley is of a man ultimately more ditzy than charismatic. He has that Peter Pan quality of the boy who never grew up. Luke Lennox’s Lord Byron is powerfully lecherous, malevolent and supercilious. It’s slightly overplayed however, making Mary’s suggested attraction to him hard to conceive after his more brutish behaviour.
Lauren-Anne Kempster is lovely as she matures Clare Clairmont’s youthful simpering naivety into world-weariness, and her growth into a surprisingly strong survivor seemingly more capable in the end than Mary.
The costumes designed by Ellen Strasser are simple but sophisticated and seemed appropriate to the era and class. The set was sparse and filled with metaphors, but seemed awkward, particularly as the actors jumped over the rectangular pond.
PMD Productions makes a point of presenting often neglected plays for an ensemble of actors and crew developing their careers. Previous plays have included, Copenhagen by Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Blood and Ice again shows the type of challenging plays PMD is prepared to try.
Blood and Ice
By Liz Lochhead
29 October – 13 November
Chapel off Chapel
12 Little Chapel Street, Prahran