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Sandy Thomson - Monstrous Bodies

Sandy Thomson was halfway through writing her new play, Monstrous Bodies, when news broke of the then presidential candidate Donald Trump's latest indiscretion. Following a stream of derogatory remarks about women and numerous allegations of sexual assault, the Washington Post released a recording from 2005. This captured Trump making off-camera remarks captured by the Access Hollywood show about how when you're apparently a star like him, you can 'Grab them by the pussy'. When Thomson heard the remarks, she was so incensed that it turned her play upside down.

“I was affronted,” says Thomson, the founder and driving force behind the Angus-based Poorboy Theatre Company, who are co-producing Monstrous Bodies with Dundee Rep, where the play opens next weekend. “I was affronted that thirteen allegations of sexual assault hadn't stopped him, and I was affronted that he could say all those things he did about women, and it still didn't stop him.”

Up until that point, Monstrous Bodies had focused on the rarely heard story of how in 1812 a fourteen year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was sent to stay in Dundee with radical thinker William Baxter and family. As Mary Shelley, the teenager would grow up to write Frankenstein and other novels, although is still best known to some for her relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.

What emerged from Thomson's anger was a second story, about a modern day teenage girl, Roxanne, whose researches into the life of Mary Shelley are upended when she becomes the victim of a very modern sex crime. As time periods overlap, Thomson has created a theatrical collage that involves dance breaks and MTV style spectacle, with nods to Reservoir Dogs and Beyonce's song, Lemonade, to tell the stories of two young women finding their voices as they come of age.

“Mary Shelley invented science fiction,” says Thomson, “but a lot of the time she's not considered interesting or significant until she ran away with Shelley, but that's wrong. It's the same with the fact that most people aren't aware that she stayed in Dundee for two years between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. Not much is made of it, but she stresses the importance of Dundee in her preface to Frankenstein.

“In 1812 when she arrived there, war with America was declared. That was after she'd been on this seven day voyage without a chaperone, and had all her money robbed on the first day. You have to hope that nothing else happened to her, but we don't know, and that became the rocket fuel for the play. This quietly imaginative girl with no mother arrives at the home of the Baxters, who are the bedrock of Dundee civic life, and all the while she's going through these changes.

“People ask how she knew about all this blood and gore in her books, but she'll have started her period, and when you're fourteen and that's happening, it feels like your body really is being made monstrous, but it's also being silenced, and that's a very dark thing to take in. All of this is being seen through the lens of a girl who is literally learning to write her own story.”

The same applies just as much to the modern day scenario in Monstrous Bodies.

“It's a look at the autonomy of bodies,” says Thomson, “and how that autonomy can be taken away from you. The way we're doing it as well, it's like looking through a little light into somebody's mind.”

Thomson's previous work with Poorboy has seen the company join forces with the National Theatre of Scotland to perform a site-specific promenade through Glasgow in Falling. An earlier work, Bridge Builders, saw Greek legend and modern day sea stories combined for an epic staging that took place in the warehouses of Dundee's City Quay. Subtitled Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O' Day Lane, Monstrous Bodies may be performed in the Rep's more conventional theatre space, but Thomson's own production is no less epic.

“What you do is write a film for the stage,” she says. “It's not just about words. It's about the staging, and that makes for an incredibly rich soup. It's about treating the stage as a site, and the auditorium as a site. It's about being allowed to work with the magic of theatre, where people can jump about the place in terms of where they are. That works well in the Rep, because from the moment you walk into the auditorium you're already on a level with the stage. The Rep is a really playful space, and there are lots of ways to make that work. ”

To this end, Monstrous Bodies will have an interactive element, whereby, in contrast to usual theatre etiquette, the audience is allowed to film part of the play on their mobile phones. Also involved will be something called the Mannequin Challenge, a viral internet video craze used largely on social media

“This becomes part of Roxanne's world, which is also being filmed,” says Thomson of the use of mobile phones in the show. “I still believe in complicity with audiences, but there's also a duty of care and a sense of responsibility that goes with that.”

Thomson also cites a Spotify dance list “as long as your arm” as part of a show that puts the traditional Scottish song The Twa' Corbies over a dub reggae backdrop.

“It's the equivalent of doing Pride and Prejudice on a night time MTV slot,” says Thomson. “It's a mash-up. Somebody said the other day that we needed a bigger boat, and we do. It's a beaut of a thing.”

As Thomson has developed Monstrous Bodies over the last two years, she has had the luxury of working with both Dundee Rep's acting ensemble alongside Poorboy's own troupe. As if combining two companies wasn't enough, a third ensemble, made up of young performers more or less the same age as Mary and Roxanne, has been formed.

“I'm not going to talk about sixteen year old girls without having them onstage,” says Thomson. “We want to talk to teenagers, not about them, and every generation is part of that conversation. It's amazing being around young people just now. We've made a community that's unique for this show. You think you remember what it's like being a teenager, but you don't. If we put adults through the stresses and strains that teenagers go through, with all the changes they have to face, we'd have to put them on medication.”

Thomson's observation was probably as true in Mary Shelley's day as it is now.

“Mary Shelley's life was so rich,” says Thomson, “and the things happening in Dundee in 1812 were so rich. That all seems to fit with some of the things that are going on now, which we see through the eyes of Roxanne. My incandescent rage at Donald Trump is in there, and that could easily end up messy and scruffy, but we keep putting things into this play, and they keep happening in real life. That says to me that we're saying something about our time that needs to be said.”

Monstrous Bodies (Chasing Mary Shelley Down Peep O'Day Lane), Dundee Rep, April 19-May 6.
www.dundeerep.co.uk

The Herald, April 11th 2017
 
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