Tea Break Theatre’s thrilling immersive production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is now showing at the National Trust’s Sutton House this Halloween. This bold production encourages the audience to reflect on female identity and the role of women in society as Tea Break Theatre puts an exciting feminist twist on the classic novel. Here, its director Katharine Armitage discusses the challenges of putting on this production, her love for female writers and where she feels the voices of females are slowly making more strides in the theatre world.
When was the first time you read a novel by a female writer?
To be honest, I can’t remember! I’ve been reading, and loving, female writers since I could hold a book. An early love was Jill Murphy who wrote the Worst Witch books which I still claim are simply SUPERB novels. When I was ten I became an obsessive Agatha Christie reader and from then on my relationship with female writers became really serious. The love of my life, however, has got to be George Eliot. If you’ve not read Middlemarch, read it. Go read it now!
For anyone who hasn’t read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, how would you describe it in less than five sentences?
It’s the story of a brilliant but arrogant man who wants to defeat death after losing his mother. So he builds a creature and brings it to life without thinking about the potential consequences of his actions. Meanwhile, his family is desperately trying to hold themselves together whilst his mistakes, and continued secrecy, start to wreak havoc on them all. It’s also the first science fiction novel.
If you could go back in time, what kind of questions would you ask Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Christina Rossetti or Mary Shelley?
Oh blimey, I’d be so starstruck I’d probably ask something utterly inane like what they ate for breakfast! Maybe, when I’d calmed down, I’d ask them what gave them the confidence to be so bold and brilliant. I am in awe of the women who did things first. I didn’t think I could write or be funny for years and it was only through seeing other incredible women do it, and be awesome, that I was able to start. So I guess I’d end up asking every writer’s worst question: where do you get your ideas from? But not the ideas for their work, the idea to start writing. I also really want to know if one of the Brontes ever just got totally fed up and kicked Bramwell in his special place. Immature? Me?
The production is inspired by Sutton House’s occupation as well. Tell us how you managed to weave the classic tale of Frankenstein and combine it with another story about under-represented women.
For us, the story of the squatter community in Sutton House is really about women who were seen as outsiders trying to shape their place within an old and fixed establishment (which the house, quite literally, represents). Frankenstein has a lot of these themes in place already. The key thing was making the creature a woman so that the voice of ‘the outsider’ in the play was powerfully female. This also paved the way for us to open up the other female characters in the story and explore how even they, despite holding positions in society and the family, are outsiders struggling to survive in a patriarchal system. We have also melded the fact the occupation turned the house into an arts venue with the origin story of Frankenstein itself (it came about as part of a storytelling competition between Mary, Percy Shelley, Byron and Polidori) and are using the time period of the mid-80s to bring out the more contemporary ideas about feminism, rebellion and science fiction.
What was the inspiration behind the use of puppetry in the production?
I’ve done a lot of work with puppetry and I adore it because it’s ‘super-acting’! With acting, you’re persuading an audience to fall in love with a fictional character, with puppetry you’re persuading them to fall for a fictional character who is also a fictional human. Weaving that magic around people is glorious and it felt so right for Mary’s story which pushes the boundaries of reality. There’s also something really delicious about animating a puppet in a story about animating the dead. There is another aspect to it as well which I won’t say here for obvious reasons!
This seems like a great time for women in theatre. We are seeing more female writers and directors in the theatre world. Do you agree?
It’s a tricky one because the reason it seems great is dependent on the fact that it was so bad before… Wow, I sound like such a misery! But, unfortunately, the stats show that women are still ridiculously underrepresented in writing and directing. A lot of light gets shone on the ones who are there to make them seem like they’re really four or five women but do a quick head count and it’s not quite as great as they would have us believe. That being said, we’re on the up and that’s a good place to be!
Compared to our fellow 19th-century writers, do you think that women have it better today?
Dear lord, yes! Everything that I would fight tooth and claw to keep – the vote, birth control, sports bras, custody rights, Buffy the vampire slayer – Mary Shelley and her fellows had to do without. Women are still having to fight for things but at least we have a battleground now and some clear enemies to poke swords at. Nineteenth-century female writers had to be subtle, secretive and sensitive with their subversion, using male names and metaphor to have their voices heard. We can shout. And I like shouting. And sports bras.
What challenges did you come across with directing and creating the show?
It’s a deeply complex novel which has a lot of psychology and philosophy in it. Trying to keep the essence of that, but making sure that the whole thing is still very much a drama, was a real challenge. The house itself always proves a challenge: you want people to be able to explore it but for that not to get in the way of the story. There are also the more mundane challenges of the house being a National Trust property and finding ways to rehearse without terrifying the lovely, seventy-year-old-on-average visitors! I didn’t make life easy for myself by aiming to combine so many elements, so that also proved an interesting balancing act. But then, if it’s not a challenge, what’s the point?
When did you know you wanted to become a director?
When I was 16 and I went on a two-week acting course and had the best time in the world but discovered that I loved all the parts and all the words too much to be a good actor. I realised that directing allows you to live each character’s journey and spend time with their words. Then I read Peter Brook’s The Empty Space and my fate was sealed. I also really like being the boss. I’m a benevolent dictator (I bring biscuits to rehearsal) but nothing quite beats being supreme commander.
What advice would you give to anyone who wanted to become a theatre director or theatre-maker?
Make stuff. Don’t worry what it is or whether it looks like ‘theatre’, just make it. It can be small, it can have no money behind it, it doesn’t matter. Start making and from there you can grow both your work and yourself. It’s all too easy to get stuck in theory or waiting for an opportunity; you learn and improve by doing. Plus, as soon as you start making something, you’re a theatre-maker, job done! Oh, and ask for help. I was bad at this for years and I could’ve saved so much time. Always ask for help.
Frankenstein is showing at Sutton House, 2 – 4 (Homerton High Street, Hackney, London, E9 6JQ) now until Saturday
3 November 2018. Click here for more information and to book tickets.