The Monstrous Heart – Review – Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
By Eve Luddington, October 2019
Oliver Emanuel is an award-winning author of more than 30 plays. His latest, The Monstrous Heart, is a joint production between the Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT), Scarborough and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, now premiering in the McCarthy Studio at SJT. It’s an 80-minute exploration of the time-old question, ‘Can we change the way we were made?’ and raises another, ‘Is there such a thing as evil?’ This is a dark play.
Mag lives in the Canadian wilds. The only distinguishing feature of her log cabin is the dead grizzly bear on her kitchen table. The action begins as a storm brews outside. Indoors, Mag’s estranged daughter, Beth, fresh from her umpteenth spell in prison, has arrived uninvited to confront her. Beth’s aggressive intrusion upends her mother’s pursuit of a quiet existence as a taxidermist (hence the bear), raising a young girl who, it turns out, is Beth’s daughter.
“Embittered and vengeful”
Mag has fled thousands of miles from the UK to escape her past and to give her granddaughter a stable life. A swift series of revelations makes us question whether Beth, angry, embittered and vengeful, is the only monster in the room. The mother she remembers was a drunkard who slept around and showed no affection to her daughter. Has Mag truly re-invented herself or is she, like a bear in winter, hibernating and prone to attack when disturbed and sensing danger?
Beth has read and debated Frankenstein in her prison book club where she’s argued that, perhaps, ‘the creator, not the created… is the real monster.’ She certainly believes that of her own creator, her mother. She searches the room for the alcohol her mother claims not to have touched in five years. When she finds a rifle and then the bottle of whisky, it’s easy to speculate that this story won’t end happily. As day turns to night and a full-blown blizzard swirls outside, Mag rises to Beth’s taunts and takes a drink. And then another. The accusatory voice of the bear (yes, this dead bear drips blood and speaks), may be uttering her own self-loathing or Beth’s: it spurs Mag into action and dangerous words erupt into physical violence.
“Moments of black humour”
The play hits us over the head with verbal aggression and a relentless onslaught of Meaningful Metaphors; Mag’s bear, Beth’s Frankenstein and the storm of life in which they are trapped. We can see that Mag’s new life has been hard-earned and that Beth has talents going to waste but, still, I couldn’t empathise with either of these damaged characters. The young girl’s fleeting appearance arouses sympathy but my lack of engagement made me regard her as little more than ‘collateral damage’ in the war between her mother and grandmother. There are a few moments of black humour but, in this performance, the audience didn’t acknowledge them.
One memorable line – voiced by that bear – did strike home: ‘Without a safe environment, it’s impossible to develop self-control.’ In this dangerous world, if this is Emanuel’s message, it’s very bleak.
Gareth Nicholls’ direction focuses on the vast gulf between mother and daughter; they approach each other only to fight. Charlene Boyd gives a feisty and spirited performance as Beth. She surprises us with a beautifully passionate rendition of a Puccini song. Christine Entwisle’s portrayal of Mag as a woman who seems emotionally drained until the drink swishes around her veins, has impact. But the bear’s central position in the space obstructs the line of tension between them and makes the actors’ job difficult.
The aggression is punctuated by stillness and long silences. Sad to admit, I filled those with questions about the plausibility of the action. Why would a recovering alcoholic keep a bottle of whisky in her house? Why, when a log-burner goes out, isn’t it re-lit? Surely not for technical reasons – to ensure that a blood-red wash on the talking bear is surrounded by darkness?
In this deep and meaningful 80 minutes, I became as alienated from the action as mother and daughter are from each other, and felt battered and bullied by the end. The shell-shocked audience applauded politely.
images: Mihaela Bodlovic