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Bloody Poetry, Jermyn Street Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Bloody Poetry, Jermyn Street Theatre

Bloody Poetry, Jermyn Street Theatre

Revival telling one of English Romanticism's greatest stories is a perfect evening

An extravagant experiment in living: Percy Bysshe Shelley and his girls

In opening words cited in the programme for Primavera’s new production of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry (1984) the playwright states he wanted to remind people of “England’s radical, republican tradition” as “Thatcher set about shredding it”. So he chose to dramatise sections of the lives of Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley in self-exile, post-Waterloo, in Switzerland and Italy. It was an odd choice.

The result was a play about poetry, dreams, idealism and personal depravity, not politics or public radicalism, or anything that engaged with early-1980s Britain. Byron and Shelley – along with the woman, Mary Godwin, who became Shelley’s wife and author of a book, Frankenstein, more widely read (unfairly) than either Don Juan and Prometheus Unbound – were utterly dislocated from the English polity.

At the height of their creativity, between 1816 and the early 1820s the poets were living out the extraordinary psychodramas, the erotic overreachings, the fervid impulses of metaphor, playing inside their heads. Brenton believes himself to be a political writer. Here he isn’t. This isn’t a political story. What he is wonderful at is catching the dynamics of character among and the rapid interchange of wit and desire between four of the most irresistible vagrants of English Romanticism; the two poets, Mary and the long-suffering Claire Clairmont, who slept with both lord (siring their child Allegra) and younger visionary.

I worried that the play would be all blustery melodrama and cod libertinism, but I worried in vain

This revival at the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre is full of light and life, and has had foisted upon it no pretence of relevance or topicality. It is exquisitely costumed by Emily Stuart, in pitch-perfect period dresses for the women and Beau Brummell finery for the men (appropriately for the street in which stands yards from the theatre a statue of the Regency pioneer). I worried that the play – which I did not see 28 years ago – would be all blustery melodrama and cod libertinism, but I worried in vain.

While Brenton’s text can sometimes feel overstretched and self-congratulatory, the essential data is marvellously there (gleaned it seems from Richard Holmes’s peerless 1974 biography of Shelley, The Pursuit): the unlikely meeting of minds on Lake Geneva between Shelley and Byron; the carefree conviction with which Mary went along with Shelley’s extravagantly irresponsible experiment in living, but also her toughness of mind and robustness of heart; the deaths of three of their children (actually just one reported in this play); the cynicism, alcoholism and athletic practicality of Byron; Claire’s charm and altruism.

 

Proceedings in Jermyn Street are unquestionably dominated by David Sturzaker. If Byron roared and swore in the richest of Queen’s (to be chronological King’s) English, and swaggered and – subtly, here – limped as Sturzaker does, then the resurrection of one of English literature’s most complex figures is uncannily complete; so are the curls and receding hairline. If he didn’t, it’s a bloody fine performance. Shelley is harder to impersonate but an incredibly young Joe Bannister, down from Cambridge last year, plays yearning, passionate intensity and physical maladroitness very well.

Rhiannon Sommers’ performance as Mary is supremely intelligent. With, again, fullness of voice and elegant self-control she understands how a certain feminine discipline can and here has to temper the imaginative teeterings of two writers slightly out of control. As Claire, Joanna Christie gets the best frocks, and plays the part of eager interloper and discarded victim with warmth and pathos. The thankless role of Polidori, Byron’s despised doctor, is taken on the chin with humour by Nick Trumble, while Emily Glenister shimmers as the ghost of Shelley’s drowned wife Harriet and will have bigger parts ahead of her. Directed deftly but generously by Tom Littler this exemplary cast offers in intimate space a gem of an evening.

  • Bloody Poetry at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 25 February

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