Kate Davis on Doctor Frankenstein's fertility treatment centre
Malthouse Theatre's 2014 company-in-residence is THE RABBLE, and in April we see the dark fruit of this inhabitation as they take on Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's trailblazing science-fiction thriller. The company is well known for its provocative and lateral approach to adaptation, offering interpretations that are consistently surprising, even in a city where doctoring the classics is all the rage. It's a safe bet that whatever they have planned for Victor Frankenstein, it will be a variation and an argument unlike any we've seen before.
Though she has only fifteen or so projects to her credit, designer Kate Davis – who founded the company with Emma Valente and Syd Brisbane in 2006 – is very much at the fore of the Australian theatrical avant-garde. She has a unique design sensibility, an intriguing practice that sits somewhere between theatre and installation art, with a defiant grandiosity.
And each new project follows into the next, as though she were working on a single, vast canvas, a livre total for the stage.
"Frankenstein feels like a natural progression from Story of O," says Davis, "just like O felt like a natural progression from Orlando. In The Story of O, our focus was sex and the erotic; now we've shifted to motherhood and reproduction."
And, she says, the tone is even darker. The Story of O was something like an erotic phantasmagoria, a lurid dream of humiliations and sexual objectification, but also a romance, albeit a romance fractured by postmodern question marks and ironic scepticism. It was, in its way, a kind of Gothic adventure story, a parable about erotic abnegation. And it's that Gothicism that Davis wants to continue exploring in Frankenstein.
"What is the Gothic now?" she asks. "We'd really like to dive into what the Gothic might be, what the possibilities are."
In THE RABBLE's radical refiguring, Mary Helen Sassman plays Doctor Frankenstein, a woman obsessed with fertility. Her laboratory creation is played by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, who emerges from a monstrous black womb, herself yearning for motherhood, already middle aged but grotesquely feminised after years of gestation and experimentation.
"I began with this nightmare idea of the monster covered in these droopy, black balloons, like eggs or cysts," explains Davis. " There's no real massive intellectual thought behind it to begin with; it's just instinct."
THE RABBLE shape their adaptations using a kind of dossier or scrapbook of collected texts, images and workshop photographs. These both inform the set and costume design and provide a guide for the performers as they're devising on the floor, reading the book like a sort of visual score. Sources for Frankenstein include everything from the art of Louise Bourgeois and the extravagant costumes of Alexander McQueen to Soviet beauty pageants and abandoned concrete monuments. The challenge for Davis is finding a frame for these diverse influences.
"We rely a lot on impulse. It's about having an imaginative sense of what can exist in the work, in that particular world," she explains. "We're rigorous about the details, the props and costumes. It all has to be connected."
There is no end of controversial matter exposed by this excavation. The issues of IVF and abortion loom large in the amplified Gothicism of the Doctor's clinic.
"We're looking at ghost stories and horror in general, and these are issues that come up when you try to reinvent that in a contemporary sense, and through a female lens," says Davis.
And it's a busy year for Davis, with THE RABBLE also presenting Cain and Abel, the Old Testament tale of humankind's first murder, at Sydney's Belvoir, a show that riffs on the mythical significance of violence, and the many cultural reiterations of that first slaughter, from Milton to Byron, Baudelaire to Baby Jane.
It's a theme of considerable contemporary interest, as Australians wonder at the casual Saturday-night violence bubbling over in the suburbs and cities, in the streets and behind closed doors. Cain and Abel is billed as a second Genesis, this time written by women, offering a feminist renovation of this millennia-old tale of fratricidal anger.
"It's more like throwing up questions about society," says Davis. "Can we fathom a woman committing the first murder? How do we feel about a woman who is violent, who is a born murderer?"
This kind of gendered experimentation is essential to THE RABBLE's process. It's how they're able to generate such memorable intensity, probing foundational myths and seeing what new and hitherto unimagined ends can be discovered in subversion and substitution.
And it's why the company is offering yet another adaptation of Mary Shelley's well-trod road to the north, where the monster meets his – or rather her – mortal maker in a storm of fire and ice, the potential challenge it holds to received theatrical traditions and the energy this can inspire.
It is that passion for reinvention which is everything for Davis. Without passion, there is nothing.
Note: Recommended for people 18 years and over due to it’s nudity, graphic imagery, sexualised content, violence and adult themes. Some audience members may find the content contronting.