Northern Stage have just completed their Queens of the North season, with the headline act being two plays with prominent female leads. As well as this, there were other plays and events that are, to use Northern Stage’s words “Stories by women, about women, about humankind through the eyes of women”. However, out of all of the events I saw, by far the strongest one was neither Dr. Frankenstein nor Hedda Gabbler, but a lower-key production over in Stage 2. So let’s begin with this.
Paddy Campbell’s new play, it must be said, had a pretty tenuous link to the Queens of the North season it was officially part of. A play that explores young people leaving foster care through their own words, both male and female, the only vague claim this has to be about humankind through the eyes of women is that the artistic director of the performing company Curious Monkey happens to be female. This play would surely have been programme with or without a Queens of the North season to put it in – it would have been crazy not to, given the following both Curious Monkey and Paddy Campbell already had.
But, hey, whatever, that’s just marketing. What I’m really interested is the play. I knew little of Curious Monkey’s previous work, but this was playing to Paddy Campell’s greatest strength on writing very fairly and knowledgeably about the social care system. The only question was whether a verbatim play could live up to his previous more conventional scripted plays. Well, what do you know? It has; in fact, it’s surpassed those expectations handsomely.
If there’s one message this play tells you about foster care: it’s complicated. As depicted so well in Day of the Flymo, even when everyone does their best, things still go wrong very easily. Sometimes it’s a battle to protect kids from abusive relatives; here, however, it’s more often a battle to protect them from themselves. The stories show very convincingly how to thrill of suddenly having a place of your own and your own independence can be a dangerous thing. Some of them have had their carers changed so many times they have no-one to look out for them; others have had carers for years who come to care for them like their own children, and stay in touch long after their duty as carer is officially done. And, most interestingly, it’s suprisingly common for those in care to become carers themselves.
And that just scratches the surface. There is so much food for thought in this play, and the lion’s share of the credit must lie with Paddy Campbell. Stories in verbatim theatre can only be an interesting as the stories you here, but one way or the other he knew where to find the most interesting stories and how to get kids and carers alike to open up. I knew Paddy Campbell was playing to his strength here, but what a strength it is. However, it’s not all his achievement here. Much of the credit also goes to Amy Golding’s directing. It is perfectly possible to do verbatim theatre with minimal movement or staging – Steve Gilroy does that all the time and it works well – but Curious Monkey really goes to town. The are some great touches in this, such as one visitor mentioning he’s from Ofsted, prompting a siren and a hasty tidying of all the beer cans left lying around.
The only thing I wasn’t totally convinced by was the use of the headphones. Throughout the play, the actors had headphones on listening and repeating the words of the real people in the story. Amy Golding said that she wanted their words to be repeated exactly, repeating all the ums and ers and inflexions with no phrasing added by the actors, and that I agree with, but I’ve seen similar things done before where actors told me they were very close to knowing it off by heart anyway. So I’d say to Curious Monkey that if you can do this without the headphones, you should. There were also times when the audience put on headphones for a more immersive experience. Again, the aims were good – the teenager’s experience of hearing everything experts were saying about her (and later, as a carer herself, understanding why they were doing this) – but getting the entire audience to wear headphones seemed like an unnecessarily extravagant way of doing this. A surround sound system could probably have done the job, and if Curious Monkey is serious about a tour, that’s a solution they’ll probably need to consider, as I can’t imagine all stages sharing the technical capabilities of Northern Stage 2.
So, what now? I am already hearing that a major tour is on the cards, which isn’t surprising given the box office success in Newcastle. But the big discussion I’m hearing is how to get the play seen by people who make decisions about social care. Apart from the general message carers do their best in complicated jobs, there were two things that I can see them wanting to get out to a wider audience. One was the number of social workers saying they’d had enough and they were ready to leave (although the play only touched on the reasons why); the other was a very dodgy case where an teenager was deported to Afghanistan. Most of the people watching this are probably going to be sympathetic to the cause anyway. How do you show this to people you need to win over.
So, radical suggestion, as per my previous thoughts on political theatre: branch beyond theatre. Theatre is a good place to be informed on an issue, but as a political battleground, that battle is already won. If you want to reach out further, create some short online videos based on the transcripts. It will involve starting over with a creative vision, and whatever creative thing appears online will be very different from what’s currently on stage, but that’s the way to get yourself heard where it matters. But I have little to fault with the current stage version, and its box office success is entirely deserved.
Queens of the North
So now we move on to the main attraction. Whilst Leaving had its lower-key run in stage 2, over on stage 1 there were two plays running together. A joint venture between Northern Stage and Greyscale – more specifically, a joint creative venture with Northern Stage artistic director Lorne Campbell and Selma Dimitrijevic, his former co-director from the theatre company he came from – it’s a formidable force to be reckoned with; Lorne with Get Carter to his name, Selma with innovative plays such as Gods are Fallen and All Safety Gone. With Dr. Frankenstein, a gender-inversed version of Mary Shelley’s famous novel, and Hedda Gabler: This is not a love story, a new take Ibsen’s play with one of the greatest parts for women, this double-header seeks to deliver a message about powerful women. There’s just one problem: having seem them both, I still haven’t a clue what this message is meant to be.
So let’s begin with Dr. Frankenstein, directed by Lorne and adapted by Selma, which grabbed a few headlines when this season was announced by making Victor Frankenstein into Victoria Frankenstein. Don’t get me wrong – this could have worked. I was sceptical about the concept in a season about powerful women because the point of the story wasn’t Victor Frankenstein’s power to create a creature, but his powerlessness one he’d created it. There’s no reason why the story couldn’t have worked with a Victoria instead of a Victor, but with Victor isolated throughout most of the story, it would have been little different. If you want to explore how a woman fares in a world of men, there are probably better stories to adapt.
Dr. Frankenstein didn’t do the thing I was worried it would do and try to make it all about how women are treated in science. I think that would have been a mistake, requiring a lot of clumsy shoehorning, and there’s probably better stories to use for that purpose. This theme is in the story – with Victoria’s father only willingly sending her daughter to study because it’s what her mother wanted, with expectations that she’s got to care after him in his old age – but that’s only a minor plot thread. The main plot thread, quite sensibly, remains her work trying to conquer death itself.
The problem arises with all the other changes made to the story. I’m a great believer that you can make all sorts of changes in adaptations, but the golden rule is that everything that matters should be the same. Here, this rule is flouted left, right and centre. Okay, we’ve had worse before (such as everyone who added in Igor), but there’s no need to follow their example. Early on Victoria tells her friend Henry all about the man she intends to bring back to life, but in doing do loses a vital piece of Frankenstein’s character as someone isolated, unable to tell anyone of the creation he’s ashamed of. The creature delivers some eloquent monologues, but that doesn’t make sense for someone created and abandoned, left to pick up basic vocabulary for itself. And the new end-of-play twist – a revelation that that the creature was trying to save the little boy, not kill him – obliterates the central theme of the story, of an anguished unloved being seeking revenge on its creator by taking those he loves the most.
And it’s a crying shame I have so much to fault with the script, because there were so many good things about the production values, not least the set and lighting from Tom Piper and Lizzie Powell. The same set is used in both plays, but it is in Dr. Frankenstein where it really comes into its own. Sometimes representing the walls, sometimes showing rows of bottles in Victoria’s laboratory. Moments such as these evoked the gothic atmosphere fitting of the novel, and had these two been the set designer for a more conventional adaptation, it could have made the play go down very well indeed.
But this is a play that could have been a gender-swapped but otherwise faithful adaptation of the book, or it could have said something new; instead, I’m sad to say it’s confusing mess that does neither. I tried looking at the original press release to see if this gave any clues (not that you should be expecting people to read press releases to understand what they just saw), and it suggested that the Creature was meant to be a metaphor representing fear of “the other” in the age of Brexit and Trump – have to say, I was still none the wiser after reading that, but that’s not the point. The point is, this isn’t the voice of Mary Shelley. We will never know what Mary Shelley would make of Brexit or Trump, but we do know she was giving a warning of meddling with forces you do not understand. And there is no trace of this left in Dr. Frankenstein. In a season of work about giving voices to women – the voice of one of our greatest female writers has been erased. And that’s a very unfortunate irony.
Hedda Gabler: This is not a love story works out better. Not that I expected anyone to think it was a love story. Henrik Ibsen was ground-breaking for his day, challenging the notion that all marriages are blissful and sacrosanct. Even A Doll’s House – by today’s standards the tamest of inoffensive amdram-friendly plays – was hugely controversial at the time, for the mere suggestion that a woman’s marriage to her husband might not be a happy one. Hedda Gabler, however, takes this to a whole new level. Trapped in a crushingly boring marriage, Hedda’s only sense of fun is firing the pistols she was left. Her husband is not a bully or a philanderer as such; instead, he’s the dreaded husband who Doesn’t Get It, completely failing to realise going round archives for his academic position might not be his new wife’s idea of a honeymoon. But recklessness and boredom is a deadly combination, especially when so can push an old lover to do something even more reckless – but it is a betrayal by the one man she thought was a trusted friend that pushes her over the edge.
This time, it’s Selma directing, with the play largely left as it is except for a few small changes. And there’s no need to change things in a season about powerful women – if by powerful you mean someone dangerous to underestimate, Hedda Gabler certainly is. Again, I’ve little to fault with the production values – all actors got their characters, and the set shared with the other play gave a distinctive feel. Piper and Powell don’t get the same chance to work their magic here like they did for the other play, but they still have some striking effects up their sleeves. The scene where Hedda recklessly burns the manuscript of her old lover’s book is choreographed very well, with flames and burnt pages used to great effect. I wasn’t quite sure what the freeze scenes were exactly meant to achieve (where everyone except Hedda freezes as she thinks over the events spiralling out of control), but it was still good to look at.
And just when I thought I could put this down as a worthwhile adaptation, along came the ending. After Hedda feels like she has no option but to shoot herself, normally the play ends with the others discovering the body. Here, she gets up, puts the dress on the floor, shoots that, wears a T-shirt underneath saying “Knowledge is power”, then exits through the auditorium saying “Shut the fuck up!” … Uh? … I’m sure there’s meant to be a message to this somewhere, but I’m buggered if I know what it is or what that was supposed to achieve.
This isn’t the first time Northern Stage has tried to be clever. Two years ago they did a version of Cyrano de Bergerac set in a gymnasium, and whilst it was possible to follow this eventually, Northern Broadsides’ version touring now knocks spots off it. It is perhaps unlucky that every time Northern Stage does a clever take on a play someone else does a more conventional and more popular version, but Blackeyed Theatre’s Frankenstein and the National Theatre’s Hedda Gabler are enjoying far more success at the moment. In terms of critical acclaim, only Dr. Frankenstein is getting something comparable with the other production. As for audience sizes, I can only compare the audience sizes on the performances I was there, but that caveat in mind – I’m afraid Northern Stage loses every time. Even Live Theatre is promoting that National’s Hedda over Northern Stage’s.
Here’s the rub. I decided to review Leaving together with Queens of the North simply because they happened to be on at the same time, same place. But comparing these two to each other, I have no doubt in my mind that had they swapped the two around, with Curious Monkey on stage 1 and Queens on stage 2, Leaving would have stormed the box office. Sure, I’m saying this with the benefit of hindsight, but even before we knew how Leaving would turn out, we already knew how well Paddy Campbell’s previous shows sold (both getting extra runs to meet demand). Of course you need gambles in theatre such as new takes of classic tales, because when these gambles pay off they can pay off phenomenally – but you don’t need the main stage for that. After all, The Woman in Black started off life in a studio theatre in Scarborough, and we know what happened there.
If Lorne Campbell wants to use Northern Stage for experimental conceptual takes of classic stories, he should – but I seriously question the wisdom of doing this on stage 1. On stage 2, Frankenstein and Hedda would, at worst, have gone down as worthwhile experiment, but a sparsely populated stage 1 auditorium can’t be good for anyone. Queens of the North does have my respect for the courage to try something different, even if it didn’t work out. It’s just too bad that its status as headliners for Northern Stage’s whole season made it such a disappointment,