The Monstrous Heart @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Oliver Emanuel and Gareth Nicholls' new show is a ferocious character study with a nihilistic vision at its heart

Review by Chris Dobson | 29 Oct 2019
  • Charlene Boyd in The Monstrous Heart

In the spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, playwright Oliver Emanuel (The 306 Trilogy) and director Gareth Nicholls (Ulster American, Crocodile Fever) have created something truly monstrous. It is a dual character study of daughter Beth (Charlene Boyd) and mother Margaret (Christine Entwisle). Beth is loud, aggressive and crude, whilst her mother seems calm and sober. The play takes place inside Margaret's wooden cabin home. In the centre of the stage, strewn over a table, is a dead bear. This draws attention to one of the production’s central themes: the ferocious beast in all of us, and especially within these two women.

If love and hate are two sides of the same coin, theirs is a coin with only one side. Beth is prepared to do anything to get back at her mother. It is an unpleasant situation to watch, as Beth emotionally manipulates and abuses Margaret, gradually breaking down her veneer of civility. The two actors both put in an extraordinary performance, and they looked exhausted by the end.

Like Ulster American, the production creates a Tarantinoesque vibe with its reliance on realistic dialogue to painfully draw out the tension. Indeed, with its snowy wood cabin setting, it resembles Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight more than anything else – except that here, it’s the hateful two. It seems very 2019 in its extreme nihilism, but towards the end it feels a little overdone.

There is an interesting, alcohol-fuelled interlude of sorts, involving the bear on the table. At this point, the play gives voice to a kind of dark poetry; indeed, the entire production is littered with morbid jokes. Given the intensity of the performances, however, there are few laughs. The passionate fury of Beth and her mother feels terribly real, and so we watch on, fascinated and horrified in equal measure by this metaphorical bearfight.

Extraordinary though this is to watch, it’s hard to discern any meaning in this torrent of words. Either there is no meaning, or the meaning is too terrible to think about. Fans of the recently released Joker might find something of merit in the play, but for those looking for something more uplifting, The Monstrous Heart is one to avoid. To its credit, it is ambitiously experimental in its plumbing of the depths of the human psyche – you just might not like what it purports to find there.

The Monstrous Heart, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 2 Nov