Subverting the classic horror film Frankenstein through a queer, trans and non-binary lens, Hester Stefan Chillingworth performs all the voices and sound effects while the film rolls, stripped of its original sound, behind them.
The female to male trans identity has been reduced in some popular discourse simply to body mutilation, and of course there are parallels and comment to be made on Mary Shelley’s story where surgery creates a new life immediately dismissed as grotesque and evil.
What is a monster? Why do some critics of gender affirmation stay silent at plastic surgery for vanity (isn’t an enhanced bosom as valid as the scars of top surgery?) but attack trans bodies as “monstrous”? What is our obsession with how others present themselves?
James Whale’s film is now 92 years old. Made in 1931 and prefaced with a warning that it might shock or horrify you, it was interesting to note the reaction of new viewers who even found comedy in the fate of little Maria.
Hester Stefan is always a beat behind with the sound (the original track is being received through earphones) and performs through a latex mask and other costuming (by set/lighting designers Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and Joshua Gadsby). The effect is bizarre and peculiar.
I know the film well through many viewings, noting the gentleness of the Monster (a Boris Karloff not even credited until the end), the vicious cruelty of Fritz (Dwight Frye, an attractive young actor who always played misfits), the fixed gender norms, the casual condensation shown towards the poorer classes.
Colin Clive (often labelled gay, like Whale) was the actor taking the lead in the film, for he, not his creation, is Frankenstein. His hysterical “It’s alive, it’s alive!” is present and correct in Hester Stefan’s version and in their own body.
This is an interesting piece of art and an experiment where we can will Hester Stefan on in their clearly exhausting quest to keep up with what’s on screen. They add pathos, comedy, and silly voices through re-dubbing, but Monster Show proves to be a lot more.
Catch this show until 3 Nov at Camden People’s Theatre – details here. It is the first part of The Extinction Trilogy with part 2, Blood Show, due at Battersea Arts Centre in autumn 2024.