“Feminism is like the hoovering: you just have to keep doing it,” once said Liz Lochhead, former Makar (poet laureate) of Scotland; and Lochhead has been true to her word, with a distinguished literary career often featuring feminist icons: Medea, Mary Queen of Scots, and here Mary Godwin, daughter of pioneering thinker Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and political philosopher William Godwin, perhaps our first anarchist. We tend to know her better as Mary Shelley, her eventual name once her lover, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was able to able to marry her after the suicide of his first wife, Harriet. Lochhead’s play explains and evaluates Mary’s life in the context of the creation of her most famous novel, explaining how Mary herself is “Frankenstein’s Frankenstein:” her life was one of monstrous suffering, marked by the deaths of several children both born and unborn, and full of bitter irony. Mary’s incisive intellect and superb education encouraged her to push against the social boundaries of “normal life”, but most of these attempted freedoms only brought her pain and disaster, not comfort or success. Like Victor Frankenstein, she is the constant victim of her own extraordinary ambition, and Lochhead shows Mary caught in successive vice-like tensions as she proudly chooses to embrace free love, yet finds herself suspicious of (and deeply hurt by) Shelley’s constant infidelities; or takes pride in creating a new world with Shelley, yet grows tired of being isolated by the censure of the real world; and, despite being calmly accepting of Shelley’s abandonment of Harriet in her favour, Mary is horrified by news of Harriet’s death, which seems another sign (like the succession of dead children) that her union with Shelley is, in fact, damned.
The play’s title, Blood and Ice, sets a suitably Gothic tone; as events unfold, we discover that in fact it refers to a key episode in Mary’s relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley, when she was bleeding so badly from a miscarriage that he plunged her into an ice bath (against the advice of doctors) and thus saved her life. But was it an act of humane bravery, thoughtless desperation, or experimental recklessness? The bending and breaking of accepted rules, whether social, physical, or existential, becomes habitual to the Shelleys in this play, along with their close friend Byron, and Mary’s silly, lovesick half-sister Claire Clairemont, who deludes herself that she can tame the great rake Byron into eternal love by calculatedly imposing on him a child he does not want or intend to create (and which, like so many other children in the play, dies anyway). Despite all this darkness and the endless dead children, it’s a witty, energetic and passionate play, and Lochhead’s rich, well-loaded lines are delivered with energy and humour by a poised, skilful cast. Director Sabrina Poole keeps the pace high: sometimes even a little too high, with words occasionally rushed, and the story’s flashing timelapse structure can sometimes be confusing to follow, but tension is brilliantly maintained throughout, with the whole space of the theatre used for action above, below and around us.
Our set, designed by Sabrina Poole and stage manager Megan-Alice Reilly, is perfectly period (with costumes to match): a scattering of dark Victorian furniture allows separate but related playing spaces, with a grave in one far corner (Mary Wollstonecraft’s), and mirrors which can become suddenly translucent to reveal ghosts beyond in Matthew Simpson’s lighting design. Silk curtains can become mysteriously alive with pawing, insistent hands: constant visual allusions to life beyond the veil. Fittingly, the fleeting children are simply rolled-up pieces of cloth, or once, movingly, a puppet. The Creature who stalks Mary’s dreams before descending onto the page also haunts the stage in dual form, male and female, dead and undead, sometimes voicing Mary’s inner thoughts or earlier memories, sometimes creeping silently between Mary and her best intentions. Played by Dawn Brindle and Greg Lyndsay-Smith respectively, each with graveyard makeup and alarming scars, the Creature dramatises Mary’s unwilling compulsion to create – as well as her horror at her own creation.
Emma Stephenson gives a finely-judged, compelling performance as Mary Shelley, a girl who unites razor sharp intelligence with a deeply practical view of the world, and finds herself drawn towards ever darker thoughts as her life is stained by public scandal, private betrayal and all that death. Verity Roat is excellent as the ignorant, playful, emotionally fragile Claire Clairemont, who comes across with vibrant poignancy in a beautifully smooth performance. Phillip Rowe is perfectly cast as the magnetic Lord Byron, debonair, defiant and debauched as he swaggers his limp across the stage, poking holes in everyone’s perceptions of themselves with cruel accuracy, his outward humour hiding inner horrors all his own. Sam Todd shows exceptional promise in the demanding role of Percy Shelley, a character he seems almost too young to play; but his youth, and the exasperating, undeveloping immaturity of Shelley’s selfish idealism, contrasts well with Rowe’s rugged, seasoned and sarcastic Byron, as well as Stephenson’s far more emotionally sophisticated, morally fraught Mary. Rebekah Oelrichs’ defensive, spiteful Elise is nicely delivered and grows in presence as her role evolves from shy servant girl to vengeful fallen woman, finally betrayed by feminism and idealism alike.
While it is entirely true that Mary Shelley’s life was sad, strained, and absolutely haunted by death, there was, in fact, a fourth child who did survive: Percy, who went to Harrow and Cambridge, and became just the sort of Establishment gentleman his father might have shocked a generation earlier: and who would have almost certainly shocked and disappointed his father by loving, caring for, and looking after his widowed mother with unstinting devotion until her early death at 53. As feminists go, it seems Mary’s endless battles did succeed in the end: in producing a son who treasured her as she deserved, rather than the men who exploited and underappreciated her genius.
Reviewed on Thursday 11 January
At the Sewell Barn Theatre until 20 January
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