Interview with writer/director Katharine Armitage – Frankenstein @ Sutton House

Please note – This interview racked up to almost 4,000 words. It has been heavily edited for brevity.

Read our review of Frankenstein HERE.

Frankenstein has been adapted many times since it was published 200 years ago. Why did you choose Frankenstein and what different take are you hoping to bring to it?

Well actually, I didn’t know about the 200 year anniversary when I had the idea. The idea to do Frankenstein came from [Sutton] House, came from learning about the 1980s when the house was derelict and taken over by a group of squatters who turned it into an arts venue. First, we just loved the feel of the eighties, because it’s actually quite 1818. They recycled a lot of regency looks in there dress and style, and you get the invention of steam punk. The eighties was also a big time for science fiction, and Frankenstein is arguably the first to codify the genre. The other lovely thing is that the characters live there but it feels like he house wasn’t made for them. There’s an idea of the ‘outsider’ in inverted commas, people who are in a system and a place that is not designed for them. They try to make it homely but it’s cavernous, then they try put science in it and it’s old and creaky. We were interested in that tension. Thinking about the squatters, and the outsider identity led us to thinking about Frankenstein…

I love Frankenstein. I studied it at school and since then I’ve been quietly obsessed with it. The origin story of a 19 year old writing this book, seemingly out of nowhere is a little mindboggling. The things that really interested me about this is that she’s this incredible woman – Mary Shelley – the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft who is in some ways the mother of modern feminism, and yet there are almost no women in Frankenstein. Elizabeth is there to die, she’s a victim. So is Justine. It’s interesting to think about why Mary Shelley would be diminishing women. When re-reading the book, I started to think ‘well, in one way it makes sense’. You couldn’t write about that. You have to be clever. But the more you read it, the more you think that the whole thing is about women, even though the women themselves are diminished, the whole thing is about being a thing that’s created by a man and then rejected, a thing that doesn’t live up to expectations. It’s all about motherhood and it’s all about the demands of society. I call it ‘finding the women’, where we’re trying to stay true to the text she could have written if there no pressures of getting it published or making men read it.

Your company performed Dracula last year, which also used immersive theatre. How does having the audience in the performance itself effect storytelling?

For me, the joy of immersive is that you’re there in the room with people. You don’t have a fourth wall, but at the same time, you don’t audiences are still aware that they’re an audience. What I want to do is a story that you’re so close to that you can smell it, and you’re scared it might touch you. When we had a vampire on stage [in last year’s production of Dracula], for example, and it would come near the audience members they would shrink back, and completely forget that it’s a five foot five female actor. For Frankenstein we’re doing something kind of different because we’re letting the audience become a little more invisible… It’s partly because of the intimacy of the story, and you’re seeing these really intimate moments between characters and start thinking ‘I really shouldn’t be’. That’s the joy of doing something immersive and yet ignoring the audience. They begin to feel that they’re spying on something. It creates this really lovely tension.

That jumps nicely into the question of monsters, and who the monster is in the room. I thought it would be interesting to define first what ‘monster’ and ‘monstrous’ mean in the context of Frankenstein.

I love that question actually. On a basic level, it’s distorted nature. Natural but unnatural. If you think about images of monsters, a really obvious one like Godzilla,  it’s something natural – a lizard – but expanded up into something monstrous… It’s always this heightened distorted version of nature. But the other definition is one of destruction. A monster destroys. And that’s what makes them different from a villain who plots, or an evil person who is usually bent on acquisition, mostly of power. A monster doesn’t have that, they just destroy, seemingly for no reason. That’s why they’re so scary because you can’t reason with them…

It’s an interesting question when you look at Victor. Is he a creator or is a destroyer? And The Creature – are they creating their new life or are they a destroyer? If you create something that then becomes destructive, who really is the monster? And then when you do bring the women out of the shadows in the story, then there’s other elements of destruction or creation that come from the characters. Again I think that’s why this story is really about women, because it’s so much about the arrogance of man and the potential monstrosity within human kind and particularly within men… The other element is mutability. You can become monstrous. The question becomes, ‘is that their fault?’ and ‘is it justified?’. Don’t we all have that slight bit inside us that wants to just tear stuff up?

You’ve paralleled the impossible expectations The Creature faces with those faced by women. How would you say those have changed since 50, 100 or even 200 years ago?

I’m not sure they’re that different. Obviously the situation has changed hugely, for the better, but sometimes it feels like the expectations are not too dissimilar. It feels like they’ve just expanded. I think kids now might give you a different answer, but I grew up with the Disney fairy stories and I love them but the expectations in all of that is about marriage. Even for queer women, the way that society has dealt with it is by saying ‘okay, fine, fine, but we still want you to get married and have a family!’… I’ve been to a lot of weddings this year, and it’s great, but there’s still the same expectations. The bride is expected, demanded to be the most beautiful she’s ever been, to be elegant. These days it’s added that she’s expected to push the boundaries a little, maybe to make a small speech, but not too much. It’s complicated because people say ‘I want to be beautiful’ and that’s totally fine, but I wonder if we didn’t have those expectations if people would still want that…

You can be strong but you still have to be docile. I have quite a loud voice and I get told to be quite by men quite a lot. I’m allowed to be strong, but not loud. And not angry. Anger is not allowed for women, in the same way that anger is not allowed for men, which is a huge, huge problem that I would love to write about, but that’s for another play.

The other thing is that women are expected to be good. You have to be the safe space for children, and yes there’s a biological aspect to that but you’re not allowed to go off the track too much. You can be strong but you have to be good, and you have to behave, even if I don’t give you any reason to behave. And that’s the interesting thing with Victor and The Creature. It’s difficult because if you’re not good, you’re very quickly labelled unreasonable, or destructive, and you can’t be trusted. Even Mary Shelley, who in many ways was such a rebel, wanted most of all to marry and have babies. Despite shaking things up so much, she still wanted to be good, because that’s how you get accepted. Again, that’s what Frankenstein is all about. Acceptance, and wanting to be accepted… And then of course there’s the other interesting issue of the parents failing expectations as well. Babies very quickly develop expectations of the parents, and that is a process of constant disappointment as neither fully matches the others expectations.

Before we finish, is there any question you wish I’d ask you? Anything we’ve missed?

The only thing I’d like to highlight is the process of adaptation. I do mess with things, but what I’m aiming for is that you mess with things and people kind of feel like you haven’t. The best adaptations are when they’ve changed something and you see it and think ‘oh but I think that was in the book’. People coming to the show who know the book, what I’m hoping they’ll get is the sense of the spirit of the book, but also feel like this is a story that was hiding in the book. Adaptations should be part of a dialogue that takes you back to the original text, and makes you say ‘oh I can see now why they would say that’. I want people to see it as a conversation with the book.

Read our review of Frankenstein HERE.

Tickets

One thought on “Interview with writer/director Katharine Armitage – Frankenstein @ Sutton House

  1. Pingback: Frankenstein, Tea Break Theatre @ Sutton House | Theatre Box

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