“I lifted my skirts. For the good of English poetry.”
Howard Brenton’s play Bloody Poetry explores the relationship that developed between Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron with particular emphasis on the complex romantic entanglements with the women in their lives. We first see Shelley on the shores of Lake Geneva where he has fled scandal in the UK after abandoning his wife to live with new spouse Mary Shelley and her half-sister Claire Clairmont in a scandalous ménage-a-trois. Matters are further complicated by Claire’s liaison with Byron which has left her pregnant and so she sets up a meeting for the four of them in Switzerland which begins the intimate intertwining of their lives.
Brenton carried out vast amount of research for the play and it shows. Existing letters and journals mean that much is known about what happened and the emotions that were felt, but combined with interpolations of poetry – both from the men themselves and from rivals like Wordsworth – these lives are given vivid, passionate life as their determination to live a ‘free’ life unshackles their behaviour from the restrictions of English society but also comes at a cost. The play, directed by Tom Littler for Primavera, spans six years from their first meeting in 1816 until Shelley’s untimely death by drowning in an Italian lake.
Preparing for his role in the UK tour of Brenton’s Anne Boleyn, David Sturzaker has lots of expansive fun as the libertine Byron, his physical presence dominating the stage as he craves attention and audience. And he is contrasted well by Joe Bannister’s Shelley, a much more studied, cerebral presence but one who soon proves an intellectual equal and perhaps a little unlikely, quite the lothario too, though Bannister never quite exudes sexual charisma to rival that of Sturzaker.
But the women are no slouches either. Rhiannon Sommers invests Mary Shelley with a bright-eyed intelligence that initially embraces the freedom offered by their new lifestyle but soon comes to appreciate the dangers inherent in a life pursued without responsibility, especially to those with children. And Joanna Christie’s Claire is the perfect example, apparently rocketing blithely from Shelley’s bed to Byron’s (though never coming across as sluttish) but then imploding with quiet devastation as the death of her daughter is announced.
This idea of the abdication of responsibility in the pursuit of artistic ideals is something that is often explored by writers, Nicholas Wright’s Travelling Light hits on something similar, and it’s an issue that I find contentious myself. Brenton partly addresses this by introducing the character of Harriet, Shelley’s abandoned first wife who we see commit suicide and then haunt the poet as he belatedly finds out about her fate, acting as a visible kind of conscience. Then we also have Dr Polidori, Nick Trumble, hanging onto the coat-tails of the group, constantly tutting and wagging his finger at them whilst sending reports of their behaviour home to the UK and ending up making a career out of gossiping about them. Undoubtedly this has its entertainment value as Trumble ambles through the audience at the Jermyn Street telling his tales, but it also lacks depth – it brings nothing new to our understanding here.
Brenton’s writing has a lyrical quality with complements the poetry of the evening perfectly, but the whole never quite elevated to the kind of great theatre that sweeps me away. Maybe it was the relative youth of the company and their slightly too polished-ness, maybe it was the structure of short scenes in the second half which thus lacked flow, maybe I just lack poetry in my soul. Certainly not a bad effort at all though, just not 100% my cup of tea.