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Bloody Poetry

Howard Brenton
Primavera
Jermyn Street Theatre

Joanna Christie as Claire and David Sturzaker as Lord Byron Credit: Primavera Productions

Brenton's 1984 play is a portrait of the tumultuous, elastic friendship between Byron and Shelley and his circle of concubines, Mary and Claire. It's a potent play that toys as much with the nature of the poetic as with the radicalism, utopia and shifting politics of Romanticism.

Initially performed at the Royal Court with Mark Rylance as the excessive liberal Byron, Bloody Poetry is underpinned by an interest in deconstructing the British relationship to utopia, tossing around discussions that attempt to both de-mythologize the artist as divine creator and build up a complex argument for modernity. Concerned with Romanticism's incessant and plural manifestation and resonance in the bleak Thatcherite years, director Tom Littler has chosen to fragment these polemics in the backdrop of a new theatrical revolutionary turn that flashes through our contemporary society.

Bloody Poetry focuses on these revolutionaries on the run, in self-imposed exile by Lake Geneva, caught in a thunderstorm of idealism and free-love. It's a convoluted mix of storytelling, character portraits and dramaturgical arguments, fleshed out over the course of a summer in the first act, and a fragmented chronology in the second. If the commune of free-love and radicalism fails to take shape in the first act, the second has a much stronger agenda to challenge the Romantic project and dissect the issues that haunted Byron and Shelley's savage utopia of forgetting as much as their transcendental project of liberation.

Yet the dogma of the production itself proves stifling, despite its acrobatic arguments, reliant on an imbalance of speculations and anachronisms as much as on the inherent theatricality of the subjects. The juxtaposition of Brenton's mediocre anti-naturalist devices in the second act with a vague theatrical language further amplifies this didacticism. Harriet, Shelley's dead wife, wanders the stage in a pool of water like a failed metaphor.

More potent is the projection used to locate each scene that refocuses our armed gaze to the feebleness of these Romantic symbols and their political undertones- the house, the lake, the garden. Here is where Brenton's argument becomes flat—in the desire to reveal the inefficacy of the revolutionaries trying to escape moral and political conventions, there's a problematic suggestion that they are unable to escape their status as upper class renegades. It's this class discourse that dominates the play and diminishes its discursive possibilities.

There's a casual tone to the lyricism of Brenton's dialogue that seldom works in the character's favour, and often leaves behind caricatures rather than personalities. This is most evident with Polidori (Nick Trumble), who becomes too technical to serve as the cynic in the game. However David Sturzaker is an excellent Lord Byron, dangerous and nuanced, unpredictable and charismatic, mad and inspiring without ever falling for clichés. Shelley, played by Joe Bannister, is mild by comparison, not as fiery but appeased by the ghosts that haunt him.

Bloody Poetry is an intriguing drama with an ambitious project—it is at times gripping and dangerous, discursive and theatrical. Yet at the same time it falls flat, weighed down by history and a lack of precision in an argument that easily turn didactic without enough flesh to support its muscularity.

Reviewer: Diana Damian