Wednesday, February 11, 2015

'Gods and Monsters' at the Southwark Playhouse, 10th February 2015

In Gods and Monsters ragged chunks of history, anatomy, sexuality and cinema are stitched together into a chaotic whole. The result is a chronologically tangled, confusing soup of emotions and memories, filtered through a crumbling mind. The play, adapted from Christopher Bram's biography Father of Frankenstein (later adapted to film), shows us the last weeks of James Whale, most famous for directing Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Set in 1957, we first meet the elderly but far from decrepit Whale (Ian Gelder), while recovering from a stroke. Though he's suffered no physical impairment, he has excruciating headaches and often finds his thinking slowed, muddy and confused. Powerful, long-buried memories surface unbidden and shock him with their intensity. Doctors are clueless, his maid is concerned and his medication merely tranquillises him. Trapped in this mental no-man's man he searches desperately for something to occupy his mind.

He finds that distraction in his gardener, Clayton Boone (Will Austin). The openly gay Whale regards Boone with unbridled lust. You can see his point, the butch Boone is the very model of homoerotic sexuality - looking like a Tom of Finland sketch come to throbbing life. The two men strike up an unlikely friendship after Boone agrees to pose as an artistic model for Whale. Boone's mere presence provides succour for Whale, taking his mind from his medical problems and awakening a libidinous tingle. But complications soon mount, with Whale's mind inexorably deteriorating past, present and future melt together, his neuroses and fantasies crystallising into Boone's buff physique.

James Whale (Ian Gelder)
Using thrust staging, director Russell Labey places the audience at the borders of Whale's lounge. Surrounded by cool white marble, tasteful mahogany and a decadent chaise longue the set is a model of restrained elegance. Gelder's Whale fits the space like a glove, his linen suits and 'Englishman abroad' style combine to make him look grown out of the floor itself. Conversely Boone sticks out like a sore thumb, his Levis and filthy vests marking him as an interloper in Whale's refined world.

In a clever touch, the marbling of the walls and floor recalls brain tissue; light pink riddled with red capillaries. Peering through is Boris Karloff's iconic monster, casting a gloomy gaze over proceedings. These elements neatly outline that we're watching a hallucinatory, psychological reality that literally takes place inside Whale's head as much as the 'real' world. This makes the moments we slip back in time affecting and morose, the elderly Whale solemnly observing the misadventures of his younger self.

Beginning with teenage sexual experimentations we soon move forward to his experiences in the Great War. These moments, aided by excellent projection work from Louise Rhoades-Brown, are intense and ethereal, the echoes of mortar shells ringing across time. As the narrative progresses, repressed memories of pain and torment bubble to the surface of Whale's consciousness, kindled by Boone's masculine ex-soldier.

Lt Whale (Will Rastall)) and Barnett (Joey Phillips)
As Whale's condition becomes more severe, he becomes increasingly unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It's here that the echoes Frankenstein emerge, Whale casting himself as the doomed Victor Frankenstein and imagining Boone as a hulking, murderous monster. Eventually he begins subconsciously re-enacting elements of Shelley's tale, praying that Boone will become a Golem and grant him release from this misery.

This means the play simultaneously functions on three distinct levels: the reality of Whale's last days, the jagged fantasies of his hallucinations and the subconscious re-enactment of Frankenstein. This is cracking theatre; you immediately sense that this is a production where every element has been intelligently constructed to elevate the whole, all aided by the two compelling performances of Gelder and Austin.

Gelder's Whale is, from minute one, a fully realised human being. He's a man who's disorientated by the ground shifted under him, you sense his strong self-image and the terror by the mask of civility slipping away and leaving him a drooling shell. In his lengthy monologues and recollections Gelder keeps us in rapt attention, drawing from apparently bottomless wells of charisma. Given that Whale is, on paper, a dirty old man leching after young flesh, it's faintly miraculous that Gelder effortlessly keeps him eminently likeable.

Will Austin impresses more with his physical presence than his acting, but damn what a physical presence. I'd say he's built like a brick shithouse, but that barely covers the half of it. His physique is such that there were muffled gasps when he first took the stage, and once again when he took his top off. The bodybuilder look combined with his gentle personality contributes to a powerful, irresistible sexuality. This is so powerful that everyone in the audience, regardless of their inclinations, sympathises with Whale's desires. Soon the very sound of Boone's lawnmower off-stage contributes to a Pavlovian reaction in both Whale and audience, setting us drooling in anticipation of Boone's presence.

This is, by any reasonable standards, a wonderful piece of theatre, but not a perfect one. For the most part the thrust staging is carefully judged to give audiences an interesting view no matter where they're sitting. But there are certain seats that offer frustratingly restricted views, important moments blocked by furniture or played with the character's back to the audience (incidentally, I'd recommend sitting stage left). Another slight quibble is the performance of Lachele Carl as Whale's devoted maid Maria. A broad Hispanic stereotype, the character is played for laughs, the pidgin English gags feeling awkward and old fashioned.

This aside, Gods and Monsters is one of the finest things I've seen on stage this year so far. Practically every millimeter of set, staging, performance and script is precision-tuned towards a single aim, a palpable and attractive eye for excellence. Emotional, intelligent, erotic and horrifying; this is a bracing gust of fresh air on the London stage.


Gods and Monsters is at the Southwark Playhouse until 7th March. Tickets £18 (£16 concs) available here.

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