Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Shared Experience's Mary Shelley

Shared Experience are a company with a colourful and varied body of work behind them, including several plays that have literary roots: last year’s Brontë drew on the story behind the Brontë sisters and their turbulent family life. Mary Shelley is another biographical play that similarly focuses on the emotional life of the titular character, and follows her from the age of sixteen, when she meets the passionate and charismatic Percy Bysshe Shelley, through her pregnancies, love life and scandalous literary circles, and up to her imminent success as a writer with her novel Frankenstein.

For anyone who’s seen a Shared Experience production before, this fits right at home with their style, using as it does a mixture of physical theatre and dream sequences integrated into the text. Helen Edmundson’s work is often an adaptation from a novel, or literary-based, at least, and the research that went into this piece was evident. As someone who has always been a fan of Mary Shelley, I was interested to see what they did with the piece, and was not disappointed. Edmundson’s script certainly packs a lot in: Shelley’s life was one of scandal, and provides the perfect basis for a play. The death of her child, her father’s disowning of her, her elopement with the already-married Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her mother’s death were packed into the production, but these tragic situations were lightened throughout with humour weaved into the play. Mr Godwin, Mary’s father, (excellently played by William Chubb) is presented as a rigid, intelligent man with an extremely dry sense of humour, and often the comedic moments of the play stem from him. One notable line is when he turns to his insufferable wife (imagine a Mrs Bennet character, if not ruder and more irritating) after she wails dramatically that he should do something otherwise she could die, and says, completely straight-faced, ‘Yes, Mrs Godwin. You have been tantalizing us with the promise of your demise for several months now and yet here you are, large as life’.

©Shared Experience; Image Credit: Robert Day
The use of set was inventive, with one long, sturdy wooden table in the middle of the stage having multiple uses: one thing that Shared Experience does, and does well, is use the audience’s imagination to add detail to a scene. If they want to stand on top of a table and pretend it’s a horse and cart, a pier, or Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, then so be it, because it is done with such finesse and absolute belief that any audience will just swallow it up. Lighting was also used effectively, segmenting the stage so that one end of the table became an entirely different room in the Shelley household, or highlighting dream sequences at strategic points in the play.

Kristin Atherton as the title role was, from the get-go, a vibrant centre of the action. Her energy onstage was unfailing, and the audience’s sympathies were always with her. My only criticism is that sometimes her impassioned speeches could be a little overwrought, but not so much as to be irritating: the play reduced me to tears at one point, so she can’t have been doing much wrong. Ben Lamb’s Percy Bysshe Shelley was one that I had to warm up to. Shelley was a charismatic, intelligent man with an incredible capacity for wooing women wherever he went, and yet Lamb’s portrayal was initially unremarkable. The sighs and overbearing attentions laid on him by the women of the play made his effect on women quite clear, but in my opinion he wasn’t particularly charming, although he did seem to ease into the character more as the play went on.

Shelley’s shocking and eventful life is a lot to pack into a play, but the script keeps the action moving forward without seeming rushed, and the small cast are a tightly-knit ensemble with no weak links. Shared Experience have triumphed yet again with this fascinating new play, and I urge you to go and see it.

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