Writer: Oliver Emanuel
Director: Gareth Nicholls
Designer: Cecile Tremolieres
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
According to the play text, The Monstrous Heart is “thrilling, chilling, witty and surreal”. It’s all those things, plus challenging, opaque and, at the end, melodramatic. In his acknowledgements Oliver Emanuel expresses gratitude for being encouraged to say what he wanted to in “the way I wanted to say it.” That way is certainly unusual and sometimes confusing, but equally certainly has impact in a committed, superbly acted production.
Mag is nearing 50 and has a past, details of which emerge during the play. She has now come to a log cabin on Whistler Mountain in Canada to escape her past, to escape herself. Part of her past is her neglect of her daughter Beth who has turned to crime and had several stints in prison. On her latest release she heads for Canada to find her mother – why? It’s clearly not for love.
Gareth Nicholls’ opening image is striking. In Cecile Tremolieres’ detailed log cabin set a very large dead bear lies on the kitchen table. Upstage right, unmoving for the opening few minutes of the play, stands a wild-looking young woman in a long coat and coonskin hat, riffing frantically on her hatred of nature and the country and all the fatal diseases she anticipates for her mother. Downstage left, as far from her as is possible, her mother tries to advance her conversation beyond repeating Beth’s name in horror. Already we are certain the play will end violently, but we don’t know how.
For about half the play, which runs 80 minutes without interval, the two women engage in accusations and revelations, some of the revelations simply factual such as Mag’s current career as a taxidermist (that bear!), some allusive, dealing with their past history. So far, so (relatively) realistic, with a sense of danger always present from Beth. Then Mag is persuaded to resume her drinking habit and the world goes crazy: the bear delivers a monologue on motherhood and murder, Mag offers an alternative narrative for the mother/daughter relationship, Beth derives inspiration from Frankenstein. The joint themes are there, mothers and monsters, and the evil of the monstrous human heart. Rather oddly the song used as an ironic counterpoint to the violence is O mio babbino caro, about love for a father, though, as it’s printed in the text as “bambino”, Emanuel is probably expecting the audience to pick up on an obscure pun in Italian!
If an air of puzzlement settles over parts of this review, there is no doubt at all about the quality of the performance. As the storm blows, now soft, now menacing, on the mountain and in the hearts and minds of the characters, Charlene Boyd (Beth) and Christine Entwisle (Mag) give remarkable performances. Boyd combines an almost feral aggression with a sharp wit and intelligence, trashing the room, cosying up to the bear and singing Puccini beautifully. Entwisle begins almost tentatively in the shock of Beth’s arrival, then, having established the quality of her new life and her redeemed self, proceeds to strip off the layers to reveal the old Mag beneath.
Initially commissioned by the Traverse Theatre, The Monstrous Heart moves on to Edinburgh after its Scarborough run.
Runs until October 19, 2019 | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic