There’s a problem. The play pissed me off. Not the production as a whole, mind, but the written words of Howard Brenton’s play. Bloody Poetry’s based around ‘true’ events in the lives of the Mary and Percy Shelley, Byron, and mistress to all, Claire Clairemont – the passion, the poetry, and all that. With such a potentially fascinating set-up, Brenton’s play disappoints. It runs along the lines of, ‘These writers, aren’t they exciting? But aren’t they troubled? Yet aren’t they exciting? But aren’t they troubled?’ Full of broad-strokes and pseudo-intellectualism, the play turns into a poor rehashing of ideas and ideals expressed in the writings of the great authors, providing a chance for Mr Brenton to show that he knows all about Leigh Hunt, and, indeed, Plato’s Cave.
However, this production does an admirable job with irksome material. The design is excellent: simple and effective, with a white (blank) canvas forming the floor and backdrop for the action. All props are visible, just to the sides of the canvas, allowing the artifice of the production to be highlighted. The cast worked well as an ensemble, pitching in on scene changes and helping to create the various playing spaces, such as a gondola fashioned out of two wooden chests. Lighting and sound were used ably, allowing, for example, the straightforward evocation of the bodies of water which are essential to the play’s settings.
The central quartet of actors all gave commendable performances. The production was best when they could step away from the knowing nods to literary history, and do some work on their theatrical relationships. Tim Schneider does admirably at portraying the ‘neurotic anorexic’ Percy ‘Bysshe’ Shelley (or so Byron dubs him), shining in his chances for direct addressing the audience. Arty Froushan captures the bombast and confidence of Lord Byron, whilst managing to balance the vulnerability which is (unsubtly) written in by Brenton. Amelia Sparling invites great sympathy with her Mary Shelley, and Claudia King does particularly well when conveying the fear and desperation of a passed over Clairemont. If the acting does, unfortunately, exacerbate the frustrating play, it’s mainly in the smaller roles. Jack Sain’s one-tone, one-level Dr Polidori grates, as does the ‘mockney’ accent donned by Charlie Daniels’ Harriet Westbrook. And, as is frequently the case in student drama, swearing poses a stumbling block, with the actors often seeming to break character, turn into students again, quite excited by the danger of it all. Overall, the characters remain caricatures, yet it’s something for which the actors can’t take all the blame.
Perhaps what’s right and wrong with the production and play can be best encapsulated in a description of Shelley’s vitriolic speech directed at the audience as ‘England.’ Schneider, framed in stark light, takes full advantage of this opportunity, powerfully venting Shelley’s anger at the false morality of the ‘smug’ English. Yet the scene achieves unwanted irony by which it is damaged, as there’s a wish that the play wasn’t all so, well, you know, …’smug’.