Mary Shelley wrote one of the greatest novels in the English language, Dr Frankenstein, at a time when women were still expected to know their place, even in a so-called age of enlightenment.
A new stage adaptation of the classic turns her famous protagonist from male to female and introduces a visionary young woman called Dr Victoria Frankenstein.
Selma Dimitrijevic’s psychologically disturbing version of Dr Frankenstein, directed by Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell, tours to the Crucible next week.
It is 1831 and the industrial revolution is dawning and the British Empire is in its pomp, an age where . everything seems possible.
That is, for any English-man. Women are not allowed to study medicine in England, so Victoria travels to Ingolstadt in Bavaria to fulfil her destiny and become Dr Frankenstein. Rejecting the notion of magic and religion she has a passion only for undiscovered science and her experiments lead her to the very brink of human knowledge: the secret of life itself.
In the dark of night, a creature is given life – with terrible consequences.
It questions what we call masculine and feminineSelma Dimitrijevic
The play is part of Queens of the North at Northern Stage in Newcastle, a season dedicated to great female stories and storytellers.
Frankenstein seemed a natural choice. In Campbell’s words: “The novel was written by a woman and I’ve always read it as being about women – most likely influenced by Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, herself a writer and a hugely influential early feminist thinker. It’s about responsibility, but from a female perspective so it seemed fitting that our Dr Frankenstein was a woman.”
Dimitrijevic, artistic director of Greyscale theatre company in Newcastle was commissioned to write the adaptation.
But she was in on the idea from the outset since they are partners in life as well as the theatre.
One of the draws for her was the opportunity to make people think of female stories in a different way.
“I am very keen in all my work to stop this tendency for a man to represent humankind and a woman just to represent women,” she says. “In literature, if it is about a female, people think it must be about motherhood or relationships.
“Here I wasn’t interested in her family or domestic situation or anything, although it’s there. The thing I am interested in is responses to politics or things happening at the moment.
“For example, people who are privileged whether through education, class or wealth generally don’t exercise their responsibilities. If a person fails to act responsibly it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman.”
And this is essentially a drama about responsibility and the inevitable consequences of action and how people choose to face up to them or try to avoid those consequences.
The Creature and how he is perceived could be a metaphor for the ‘fear of the other’. In Shelley’s time that would be what the industrial revolution, imperial expansion and capitalism might bring. For us now it could be interpreted as xenophobia, racism, sexism or any other responses to those different from ourselves whether applied to globalisation, the refugee crisis, climate change, Trump or Brexit.
“What I love thinking about the original story and what it could mean and how it plays with someone is dependent on what you are interested in personally,” continues the writer.
“A couple of people have said she is very flawed and arrogant and not like a woman but making Frankenstein into a woman isn’t going to make her a beacon of good things. She is going to be just as flawed.
It is set in 1831 which is the year Mary Shelley wrote the final re-write. She was 19 when she wrote it and she was in her thirties when she did the final edit.
It was a time when women could observe lectures as long as they sat behind a curtain. Did they think men would be put off if they could see them? So they could take part but couldn’t practise and that was an interesting time when things are just about to change and her being a pioneer.
Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, her mother, were feminists in their way and optimistic about things changing.
“A lot of people in post discussions have described Victoria as masculine because she’s loud and overbearing, stubborn and argumentative. Why can’t a woman be all of those things? It questions what we call masculine and feminine.”
Dr Frankenstein is at the Crucible from March 15-25.