Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, directed this month by Tom Littler at the Jermyn Theatre, is an emotional and introspective story, timely in its themes of radicalism and desire for reform. However, a lack of chemistry between the characters and a lack of context to separate 19th century radicalism from our modern version make it difficult to connect emotionally with this particular production.
Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife by name (though not by law) Mary, and her step-sister Claire flee from England, leaving establishment, repression, Percy’s legal wife and widespread scandal behind them. The trio position themselves to intercept Lord Byron on his travels so that Bysshe and Byron, two radical exiled poets, might meet.
While the group’s summer together in Geneva produces something approximating their desired commune of free love and radical thinking, as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and numerous creative works from the two poets, the undertones are present for the emotionally disastrous future ahead. The unravelling of their relationships and ideals forms the backbone of the play and lurks beneath even the most lighthearted, humorous moments before becoming fully and agonisingly apparent by the play’s end.
It’s an incredibly strong piece of writing but something falls flat in the execution. The actors, each strong in their individual characters – particularly Rhiannon Sommers as Mary Shelley – don't feed off the same energy, and their performances fail to gel. Only David Sturzaker’s Lord Byron rings true – as a man who treats all of his relationships with a fickle indifference as long as he has someone to entertain him. Where the audience should be drawn into the foursome’s emotional entanglements, included in the passionate romance all four share with each other, instead the individual characters come across as quite selfish and distance themselves from the audience and each other.
The production also struggles to place the foursome in the distinct political context of their times. In today’s world of Arab Spring revolutions, Occupy movements and earthquake relief efforts, it’s hard to remember that Byron and Shelley’s brand of revolution and action was as dramatic in conservative 19th century Britain as many modern efforts are today. There is minimal effort to place the audience in this mindset, bar half-hearted expositional reminders of the scandalous press and legal repercussions awaiting Shelley back in England.
Bloody Poetry is perhaps Howard Brenton’s best work, and can overwhelm with emotion in the right hands, place and time. Tom Littler delivers an academically sound version of this excellent play. Unfortunately this particular performance lacks the emotional punch and context to deliver a truly successful production.