Sex sells. It’s an age old promise that’s been taken to heart in the promotional material for Gods and Monsters that has centered on the impossibly muscular physique of actor Will Austin. If the sight of some man flesh is enough to get you in the theatre then so be it, but any hopes this play may offer some gothic horror in the vein of its subject are quickly dissipated.
Stripped back, this is an interesting portrayal of a very troubled man. Based on the 1998 film of the same name (starring Ian McKellen) and set in the 1950s, it focuses on the later life of James Whale, director of the 1931 horror film Frankenstein. Yet where the film includes scenes of the man at work on set, this play takes place solely in his home, minimising any links to his work. Instead, it explores his inner-conflict with his homosexuality and the trauma of serving in WWI. Sexual thoughts result in a strange psychosis and inexplicable headaches as he reminisces on the past. This is shown through some tender flashbacks performed with wonderful conviction by Joey Phillips and Will Rastall that add depth to the drama, breaking up what is otherwise a lot of long, drawn out exposition.
Yet the storytelling is hidden under layers of nudity, homoeroticism and cliché. Suffering from his illness, Whale is mostly bound to his study where he leers at the young buff gardener outside before inviting him in to act as his life-drawing muse – it’s an incredibly hackneyed plotline. Austin, as gardener Clayton Boone, is a wooden structure of masculinity who parades around the stage as if competing in a body building contest. Ian Gelder’s Whale, meanwhile, is a randy old man who speaks only in eye-rolling sexual innuendo, refusing to answer a young male student’s questions unless he takes off his clothes, and forever asking Boone to take his shirt off ‘for his art’. Yet there seems to be little artistic value in the amount of nudity in the show, it’s just awkward to watch. Gelder is unable to bring warmth to the role and Whale's relationship with Boone never develops. He is literally a monstrosity of homosexuality with few likeable factors to redeem the character.
This is somewhat the point. In a subtle parallel to the Frankenstein story, Boone is not quite the hard-edged man we expect from his physique; likewise Whale is far from a helpless old man, he is an evil and masterful manipulator and sexual predator. And is there any wonder this is the case when homosexuality was illegal at the time, gay men privately trapped in the closet? Equally is this not an antiquated, grim stereotype that need not be perpetuated? Should we merely consider the play within its historical context, or is it counterproductive to today’s efforts for equality and acceptance?
Lachele Carl does at least bring some humour to her role as Whale’s housekeeper and Jason Denvir’s set design is well constructed, though it feels too spacious and lacks intimacy. Yet if Gods and Monsters is meant to be an in-depth assessment of the gay male gaze, it just comes off as shallow and sleazy.
Watch: Gods and Monsters runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 7th March.