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Genesis: The Mary Shelley Play

Mary Humphrey Baldridge
Artists Collective Theatre (Calgary, Alberta, Canada)
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It's curious that despite, this play being called Genesis: The Mary Shelley Play, for great swathes of it, she remains something of a background character. This could be in part due to the larger than life personalities and the lusty, baleful squabbling all around her, but it remains that until an appreciable wander into things, Mary Godwin, (not officially Shelley till some months later) is a periphery character to what is ostensibly her own story.

Trapped by unseasonable weather in Lord Byron's Swiss mansion, a select group of his friends and sometime lovers passed the time in conversation and fleeting games and distractions, one of which was a competition to write a ghost story, one that led to the creation of one of the greatest horror novels of all time. Arts Collective Theatre has recreated that historical event in the form of a play that stirs the lascivious, libertine natures of the time with the elements of Gothic horror that can be found in the book, Frankenstein; Or The Modern Prometheus.

It's a spooky, sexy and raunchy production, with a lot in its favour, but unfortunately a few issues that pull it back. Take the rather overlong opening scene of the poets and writers—and of course, the eternal hanger-on, Clairmont—which serves to introduce the group and their dynamics, but drags on a little. The structure is also hampered a tad by slightly mystifying time jumps and changes of location around the Villa Diodati.

It's encouraging then that the acting is for the most part of high calibre. The cast are believable and there's much fun to be had in the histrionics and pettiness of Byron, Polidori and Clairmont as they each moon about preening, simpering and whining by turns. It's simply that despite the fun, it takes away from the more interesting story thread of the ghost story competition, which is dangled tantalisingly early on, then abandoned for much of the run time.

Credit where it is due, that Mary Humphrey Baldridge's script does tighten the screws on Mary's discomfort. Her increasing unease at Byron's flirtatious manner with Shelley, and his cruel dismissals of Polidori, help evoke a sense of helplessness, one that she combats with the small nuggets of conversational suggestion that will eventually lead to the creation of both Frankenstein, and Polidori's Vampyre.

It's certainly an entertaining piece, but one that never quite fixates as it should, or maintains the Gothic atmosphere that would have made it excellent.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan