Bloody Poetry

Howard Brenton
Moving Being Productions
Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff
(2007)

Howard Brenton's Bloody Poetry is a fascinating look at the now mythical meeting of Byron and Shelley in Switzerland and two of the women they kept in tow, Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont. The play's focus is on the unconventional lives of these four individuals in the early nineteenth century, commentated upon by Byron's contemporary biographer, Dr William Polidori.

Brenton blends a lyrical, romantic text and uncompromising satire with a very modern edge. He tells a story of sexual excess and a disregard for convention in an age when convention was everything. It portrays all four individuals as free-thinking, free-loving (Byron's own term) idealists, or as Shelley puts it, "atheistical perverts". It examines the nature of art and idealism against a backdrop of talent and passion and friendship.

Sadly this production doesn't always come up with the uncompromising direction, nor the pitch-perfect characterisations needed to do this piece justice. Some of the characterisations left me wanting more; one or two scenes left me wanting a whole lot less. And Geoff Moore's direction doesn't go far enough to create the anarchic, hedonistic world of Byron and Shelley.

Dewi Savage's Polidori sets the right tone, however, with his scathing commentary (describing Byron as a "syphilitic, pox-ridden alcoholic"), and his barely-hidden envy. His fury, too, at Byron's dismissal of his "second rate", though well-paid work, as a writer make Polidori's observations a strong and much-welcomed feature of the production; a recognisable scandal-monger for a modern audience.

Simon Reeves gives the strongest performance of the night, with a deliciously foppish representation of Byron, languishing in seductive self-gratification, delivered with a graceful naturalism. By contrast, Richard Lynch does well to portray Shelley's angst-ridden neurosis, his obsessive analysis of the nature of his art, which Polidori comments on, but doesn't convince in his portrayal of the hedonism of the man who abandoned one woman in favour of a simultaneous affair with two others; the man so caught up in his idealistic portrayal of the martyrs of the Peterloo Massacre that he failed to notice the death of his own daughter.

Sally Evans plays Claire Clairmont, the much abused former lover of Byron and later live-in lover of Shelley. Clairmont was so wronged by Byron, both as his lover and as the mother of his child (whom he removed to a convent against her wishes, where the little girl later died). Evans does well at first to show an obsessive love and a blind hope which allows her to fool herself into thinking she can tame Byron in order to secure a future with him. But there is little of the sense of her innate outrage of her situation as Clairmont matures later in the play. "I lifted my skirt for the good of English poetry," she tells Mary Shelley, only to be discarded by Byron, with a dismissive, "My abuse is a gift; it will enrich your diary." The woman should be raging; instead she avoids him on the beach and settles for throwing him a rather lame disgruntled look.

Lauren Phillips is a mannered and self-conscious Mary Shelley, in a laboured performance which captures none of the tortured soul of the woman. She nests on her lines, overly reliant on a studied physicality at the cost of a more cerebral characterisation.

The production benefits from a stark set, cleverly designed to give the merest hint of period opulence by Kim Hazzell. The music, provided by The Only Ones, and the soundscore, by Stefan Podolczuk, provide an energetic and atmospheric touch and the subtle use of on-screen visuals (John Thorne and Belinda Neave) add a thoughtful third dimension.

Geoff Moore's production could do a lot more to convey the riotous nature and the uncomfortable consequences of Byron and Shelley's 'free-love', but this is nevertheless a thought-provoking performance of Brenton's challenging play.

"Bloody Poetry" runs at Chapter until Sunday 29th July.

Allison Vale