Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Eliot Giuralarocca: Frankenstein

By | Published on Friday 3 February 2017

I’m always pleased to see a fresh approach to a classic, and Blackeyed Theatre’s new adaptation of ‘Frankenstein’, set aboard ship and featuring a very tall puppet, sounds amazing. Luckily for Londoners, it’s headed to Greenwich Theatre for a short run as part of a UK tour.
To find out more about the show I put some questions to director Eliot Giuralarocca.

CM: I would imagine pretty much everyone has an idea of the story of Frankenstein, but can you tell us about this particular adaptation? How faithful is it to Mary Shelley’s original story?
EG: The structure of Mary Shelley’s novel takes the form of a story that contains other stories within it and John Ginman’s splendid adaptation has stayed very faithful to this multi-layered approach to telling the tale. Our play starts with Captain Robert Walton recounting his journey to the North Pole where he meets an exhausted, half-dead Frankenstein who in turn, proceeds to tell us the story of his life and within that story we find another story, the Creature’s story. This ‘Russian doll’ structure had a nightmarish, dream like quality that fired my imagination. Questions formed in my mind… How reliable was Frankenstein? Could what he says be true? Had he hallucinated the whole thing? Is he in fact a raving madman…? All we know for sure is that he’s telling us a story. And so I decided that we should embrace this element of storytelling and make it the artistic cornerstone for the piece. So we have ‘set’ the play on Robert Walton’s ship ‘The Prometheus’, which Frankenstein clambers aboard and in turn the ship’s ropes, crates and the materials and the furniture that Frankenstein finds there become what he uses, and what we use theatrically, to help tell his story.

As well as Frankenstein’s story we also see and hear the Creature’s story, told from his perspective and in his own words, sharing with the audience the experiences that have formed him and made him what he is. This is at the heart of the novel and it is crucial to our adaptation. I think we have remained very true and faithful to the novel while celebrating the excitement of live theatre – using inventive, bold storytelling to bring Mary Shelley’s dark gothic thriller to life. We use puppetry, live music and sound and utilize all the skills and abilities of our incredibly talented ensemble of five performers. It’s certainly a busy show for them! My ambition with the piece is to excite, move and entertain but also to serve up the story with integrity, challenging the audience with the complex moral questions that the tale provokes.

CM: How does your (and Shelley’s) portrayal differ from what we see in horror films and contemporary media?
EG: There have been so many films, spoofs, spin-offs and adaptations of ‘Frankenstein’. Some, like Kenneth Branagh’s 1981 film ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ have stayed close to the source material, while others have used it brilliantly for comic effect – the pinnacle for me being Mel Brooks sublime 1974 film ‘Young Frankenstein’.

Other versions of Frankenstein have also been hilarious, often for all the wrong reasons! Some of my favourites in this category include ‘Dr Frankenstein on Campus’ (1970) where we see Mary Shelley’s protagonist transposed to Canada where as a student at the University of Toronto, he conducts brain control experiments on a variety of animals and humans and generally terrorises anyone that he comes into contact with, and ‘Dracula vs Frankenstein’ (1971) which attempts to cash in on the gothic franchise as the descendants of the title battle it out, and ‘Frankenstein’s Island’ (1981) which takes the bizzare one step further and gives us Victor Frankenstein as a disembodied head floating around and dispensing advice to his daughter! These films, along with a host of fantastical Hammer House of Horror tales, of course bear almost no resemblance to the dark gothic story that the seventeen year old Mary Shelley wrote in 1816 and which she said had “haunted her midnight pillow”.

When I read the novel I was struck by just how much it is a story about morality as well as being a crucible for exploring contemporary ideas and complex ethical issues that were actively being debated during her lifetime. ‘Frankenstein’ must be one of the first attempts in literature to portray the education of a scientist and indeed Galvanism, and the work of Humphry Davy, focusing on the creative potential of electricity provided the scientific backdrop to her fiction. She was living through an age in which the pace of scientific discovery was increasing exponentially, an age when science was beginning to rival religion as a form of human empowerment. Luigi Galvini was animating dead frogs and making their legs twitch while his nephew Giovanni Aldini went a step further and famously re-animated a recently hung criminal, George Foster.

So the idea of bringing a human being back to life was a genuine aspiration of the day. But where many horror films and versions of Frankenstein have this as the main focus of the story, Shelley’s novel is really about what happens next. What happens if you give something life? What are the consequences of playing God? It’s an archetypal myth and I think that’s what makes it so enduring and relevant.

CM: What made you want to get involved in bringing this particular tale to the stage?
EG: Adrian McDougall, the Artistic Director of Blackeyed Theatre, approached me with the idea and I jumped at the chance to do it! I knew the novel well and really loved it. It’s a gripping, classic story that has stood the test of time and when you are presented with an opportunity to have a go at something like that you simply have to grasp it with both hands. I’d directed ‘Dracula’ for the company a couple of years previously and had really enjoyed trying to meet the challenges that the gothic horror genre presented. Working on the show was a very creative experience and thankfully, ‘Dracula’ proved to be very popular with audiences too. John Ginman, who had adapted the novel for the stage had also been commissioned to adapt Mary Shelley’s novel and that, along with having the same artistic team that I’d used on ‘Dracula’ on board for ‘Frankenstein’ was also very reassuring. Working with the same creative team gives you a creative shorthand and a vital sense of complicity which means that at least you start a project with hope!

CM: In what ways do you think the story has relevance for contemporary audiences?
EG: It is 200 years since the novel was written and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has become a powerful creation myth to rival Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. It has given rise to the concept of the mad scientist obsessively pushing the boundaries of scientific endeavour and playing and usurping God with all the ethical and moral questions that flow from this. Indeed the very name of the doctor has come to stand as a byword for all our anxieties about scientific progress and innovation often used as a prefix when discussing pioneering but ethically or morally contentious science in fields as diverse as DNA, ‘test tube’ fertilisation, food production, Artificial intelligence, organ transplantation and genetic engineering.

The man that received the very first heart transplant said that he ‘felt like Frankenstein’, though he should more accurately have said that he felt like the Creature. His confusion was understandable; it is a common misconception in the public consciousness that Frankenstein is the name of the monster. In fact, in the novel Victor Frankenstein doesn’t even give the creature a name. I think Mary Shelley would have approved of the irony!

CM: The Creature is to be portrayed using bunraku style puppetry. Can you tell us about it? Who created the puppet?
EG: For me, the beauty and excitement of theatre is that it is live, unfolding in front of you as you watch. So I made the decision to cast the creature as a life-sized 6’4” Bunraku style puppet and this vision has been thrillingly brought to life by Yvonne Stone, a puppet maker and puppetry director who designed and built our creature and who had previously worked on the ground-breaking stage adaptations of Warhorse and His Dark Materials. We worked closely together to decide on what the creature should look like and it seemed important that it should spring from Frankenstein’s imagination, like a dark, disjointed gothic nightmare with elements and accents of the world of Walton’s ship – where Frankenstein is relating the story of his life. We wanted the creature to look like it had been wrenched from the set itself with elements of cloth and rope and sack and stitches, something that has literally been willed into life by Frankenstein as the story unfolds.

Using a puppet brought to life by puppeteers also seemed to me to be a lovely theatrical metaphor for the act of creation in the story itself. I hope that we mirror Frankenstein’s obsession with bringing dead matter to life by animating, voicing, manipulating and giving life to the puppet in front of the audience, and hopefully creating the illusion that it has a life of its own. The creature needs up to three people to manipulate it and the audience will watch the puppeteers moving individual parts of its body in a feat of complex choreography and teamwork. But when Bunraku is done well something magical happens; after a couple of minutes the audience stops watching the puppeteers and instead just see the creature moving independently. If that happens you know you’ve got it right!

CM: The company previously did a production of ‘Dracula’, and I understand that there’s a Jekyll & Hyde show in the planning stages. Has Blackeyed Theatre taken a turn for the dark?
EG: Artistic director Adrian McDougall says: “We’re certainly doing our fair share of the Gothic thrillers, yes. It’s more by accident than design though. For any theatre company, choosing the right title is incredibly important, but particularly for those like Blackeyed that receive little or no funding. Because it’s not just about choosing great stories that provide interesting artistic challenges. It’s also about sustainability; choosing titles that people want to see. There certainly seems to be an appetite for dark thrillers at the moment, which ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’ and ‘Jekyll & Hyde’ all satisfy. But in addition, they are all prescribed or recommended texts on the syllabus, and education is an important factor in what we do. I believe our work spans these two (quite different) audiences by presenting accessible titles in fresh, innovative new ways”.

CM: How long have you been involved with the company?
EG: My association with the company began in 2012 when Adrian cast me as an actor in the title role of their production of ‘The Beekeeper’ which played in London at the Waterloo East Theatre. It was a very creative and rewarding experience and I was delighted to be nominated in the Best Actor category of the Off West End awards that year. I’d really enjoyed working with the team and admired the ethos of Blackeyed Theatre and so when Adrian asked me if I’d be interested in directing for the company I jumped at the chance. Since then I’ve directed productions of ‘Dracula’, ‘Not About Heroes’, ‘The Great Gatsby’ and this current production of ‘Frankenstein’.

CM: Was it always your plan to do both acting and directing?
EG: I suppose that it was always my plan to do both though of course trying to have a career as a director and as an actor in easy harmony is never as simple as it sounds! People are desperately keen to pigeon-hole you and put you in a box. And so it has come to pass that I have a set of people in the business that see me as a director and another set of people that think of me as an actor. I often feel that I’m changing hats on a regular basis depending on the company I’m keeping!

When I was starting out a lifetime ago, full of optimism and fresh from drama school I saw myself very much as a theatre maker, devising, collaborating, creating my own work and performing in it. Then, for a number of years I followed the more conventional path of a jobbing actor, working pretty consistently, with periods of excitement and occasionally being in something that I was proud of but without feeling particularly fulfilled creatively. In recent years a number of people have asked me to direct for them which has been very rewarding creatively and feels like a grown up job! But it’s great to do both and that’s still the aspiration. Acting and directing are different jobs with different skill sets and you use different parts of yourself, but for me they definitely feed one into the other. Trying to get the balance right between the two while making enough money to put food on the table is the trick!

CM: What’s next for Blackeyed Theatre?
EG: Next up for the Blackeyed Theatre treatment is Nick Lane’s brilliant adaptation of the classic Gothic thriller ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. It’s a show in which love, betrayal and murder combine in a chilling tale of good vs evil. We hope to bring our audience an exciting, stylish and thought-provoking production, embarking on a major UK tour from September 2017.

CM: What’s next for you?
EG: In 2016 I was approached by the early music ensemble Le Tendre Amour, who are based in Spain, to help create and direct a production of ‘The Tempest’ to mark the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. I adapted the script, brought together five incredible musicians and two actors from five countries, and after a crazy three weeks of rehearsals in Barcelona we opened at the International Festival of Theatre in Malaga. The show went down well and was nominated for the Gran Premio de Espana de Artes Escenicass and I spent a lot of last year travelling around Europe, performing as Prospero in theatres and festivals in France, Luxembourg and throughout Spain. It was joyous and a great antidote to Brexit! I hope to bring the show to the UK soon.

Apart from that I’m ready, willing and available for whatever comes my way! On a personal note, I’m also currently training for the London Marathon in April, running for Depaul which is a charity that focuses on helping homeless children. It’s an important cause and I decided it would be a great personal challenge for me!

‘Frankenstein’ is on at Greenwich Theatre from 7-11 Feb, see the venue website here to book your tickets.

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