Blood and Ice

Liz Lochhead
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
(2003)

Looking forward to a particular play can often be a bad idea - especially for a critic, especially when so much of what's on stage winds up being so disappointing. But the subject matter of Liz Lochhead's Blood and Ice, on stage until 15th November, made it impossible to keep from excited anticipation of seeing the show.

This production, directed and designed by Graham McLaren, does not disappoint.

The play tells, though the flashbacks of Mary Godwin Shelley (Lucianne McEvoy), of events beginning during the summer of 1816, when Mary and her lover Percy Byshe Shelley (Phil Matthews), along with Mary's half-sister Claire (Susan Coyle) and the infamous Lord Byron (Alex Hassell), in the midst of a summer at Lake Geneva, take part in a contest to see who can write the most horrifying story. The play then follows the story of the foursome to the death of both Byron and Shelley, and beyond to Mary's struggle in understanding why she wrote the horrifying Frankenstein.

The play is a rollercoaster of events and emotions, and what is perhaps most impressive is that McEvoy, on stage during the entire two hour run of the show, manages to sustain an incredible amount of energy and focus throughout. While the other characters run in and out of scenes, Mary is the show's emotional core, and anchors the action as well as driving its progression.

Phil Matthews' portrayal of Shelley is nothing short of thrilling. From the moment Shelley comes on stage (wrapped in a table cloth, much to Mary's chagrin), his presence demands the attention of the audience. His good-natured camaraderie and easygoing attitude toward each of the calamities that confront the party of four over the course of the evening make it easy to see why the younger Mary would have been willing elope with a married man whose wife and children were back in England.

The jaded, cynical Lord Byron spends much of his time lecturing the other, younger characters, and it's a credit to both Hassell's performance and Lochhead's writing that this does not become tiring. Surprisingly, Byron's flamboyance takes a back seat to his oratory debates, and although much is said of his outrageousness he in fact comes across as a less ideal force of reason. But as he states, he delights in having a code of rules to flout and would not wish there to be no rules at all - and Hassell does quite well in playing Byron almost as a member of an older generation, dismayed at seeing how badly the younger writers conduct themselves.

The fourth member of the group is Mary's half-sister Claire, played by Susan Coyle. Claire is perhaps the weakest link in this group; alternately Mary's confidant and Byron's plaything, Coyle is never quite able to lift Claire's petulant naïveté into something more pointed and focused, though it is hard to tell if this is due to decisions of how to play the character or rather to the way the part has been written.

Finally, the cast is filled out by Michelle Rodley, who plays the young Swiss maid employed by the Shelley's in their travels. Rodley spends very little time on stage, but manages to make the most of the appearances - and it's stunning to see the transformation undergone by the initially timid Elise, who in the end makes the point that Mary's high-minded ideals are deeply rooted in both hypocrisy and class divides.

McLaren's set, which depicts a large, airy room filled with doors and a staircase, is impressive, and it would obviously have been difficult to use different sets for each one of the new locations visited by the Shelley family during their travels, but it would have been easy to miss the scant lines of dialogue that refer to changes of setting - in which case audiences could wind up confused when the parlor that housed the antics of the first act becomes rooms in various houses across the continent.

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Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody