Theatre review: Monstrous Bodies

Billy Mack as William Thomas Baxter and Irene MacDougall (as Marianne Baxter) in Monstrous Bodies at Dundee Rep. PIC:  Jane Hobson.
Billy Mack as William Thomas Baxter and Irene MacDougall (as Marianne Baxter) in Monstrous Bodies at Dundee Rep. PIC: Jane Hobson.
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It’s almost 35 years since Liz Lochhead launched her remarkable playwriting career with Blood And Ice, a play inspired by the extraordinary life and imagination of the woman who wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. And now, out of the darkness of Dundee Rep’s beautiful, sweeping stage, comes another magnificent Shelley-inspired drama about the unending struggle for women’s rights and self-determination – a struggle which 200 years ago shaped the lives of Mary Shelley and her remarkable mother, the campaigner and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, and which continues unabated today, when despite so many gains over the last century, young women face brand new hazards of online abuse and hatred.

Monstrous Bodies ****

Dundee Rep

So Sandy Thomson’s powerful and fascinating new play – co-produced by Dundee Rep and Thomson’s own company, Poorboy Ensemble – intertwines two stories. One is based on the period in 1812 when young Mary Shelley, then aged 14 and still known as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, came to Dundee to live for a while with the wealthy but radical Baxter family. The other is the fictional but well-researched story of a 21st century Dundee teenager, Roxanne. She is preparing to give a school talk on Mary Shelley when her life is derailed by a popular leader of “lad” culture in her class, who takes a semi-naked photograph of her unconscious after a drunken party, and posts it on social media.

The scene is therefore set for a rich, passionate and sometimes slightly mind-blowing theatre experience, as the young Mary joins her kind and motherly Dundee hostess Marianne Baxter, eloquently played by the great Irene Macdougall, in fighting the pompous and sometimes deadly patriarchal arrogance that surrounds female lives in the early 19th century, while 21st century Roxanne searches desperately for the inner strength to fight the sense of humiliation and worthlessness created by internet bullying.

Thomson, who also directs, uses all the resources of theatre to ­dazzling effect, washing the stage with fiercely contrasting lighting states and rowdy feminist rock music, and deploying a cast of 11, plus 15 young performers from the Rep’s Young Company, in explosive dance sequences by Emma Jane Park that range from the slightly intrusive to the absolutely brilliant. And if the alternations between one story and another sometimes seem exhausting – and the Mary Shelley story is too melodramatic towards the end – Monstrous Bodies remains a breathtakingly ambitious piece of contemporary theatre, sustained by two magnificent central performances from Eilidh McCormick as Mary and Rebekah Lumsden as Roxanne, ruthlessly honest about the physical reality of women’s lives, and memorably courageous in facing the demons and dragons of misogyny that have been laid low by so many brave feminist fighters through the ages, but that still return in every generation, to be confronted again.

*Until 6 May