Bloody Poetry

Howard Brenton

Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

The Richmond Shakespeare Society's latest production, Bloody Poetry, directed by Gerald Baker, is a brave choice. Howard Brenton's work is never easy and his portrait of poets forced into exile is characteristic.

The key players are George, Lord Byron, played by a very expressive Stephen King, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ben Horslen vacillating between the charming and heartless lover, and Mary Godwin Shelley, Emma John as the overwrought if not slightly mad creator of Frankenstein.

They are a century and a half ahead of their time. They advocate atheism, Platonic ideals and free love. The two men not only leave loved ones strewn along the way but also each lose deserted daughters in childhood. A very staid Twickenham audience clearly berated their lack of morality and use of unnecessarily foul language.

Byron seems only to have cared for himself, his loves both male and female and his art. He was particularly scathing of the competition and, especially, had no time for Shelley's poetic hero, Wordsworth. The younger man, Shelley, was greatly motivated by his very liberal political views and ultimately seems to have cared more for the martyred at Peterloo than for either of his wives or for his poor dead daughter.

The production is greatly helped by Alanna E. Smith's period costumes that give a greater sense of time and also by Chris Allen's atmospheric lighting. As is Brenton's way, much of the language is greatly heightened and he concentrates on his political message - on occasions to the detriment of character. In particular, the women are to an extent little more than ciphers for the two superstar male poets to bounce off and use for their own wicked ends.

This is a very challenging night's entertainment that illuminates three famous self-serving writers and the times in which they lived. Undoubtedly the high point is Ben Horslen's final, exceedingly dramatic rendition of Shelley's "communistic" diatribe, The Mask of Anarchy, which brings down the curtain on a high point.