The TheatreguideLondon Review
Jermyn Street Theatre February 2012
Bloody Poetry, written in 1984, exposes an ambivalence on the part of playwright Howard Brenton toward his subject, but not the sort that generates theatrical tension. Rather, the play – at least in this revival – severely undercuts those it wants to admire as well as question.
Act One of the play is set in 1816 Switzerland, where the poet Shelley has fled with his mistress Mary and back-up mistress Claire, who is also sleeping with Lord Byron and engineers a meeting of the two poets.
As played by David Sturzaker, Byron is very much the condescending celebrity-as-luvie, while Joe Bannister's Shelley is tentatively trying on the identity of aesthete. Joanna Christie's Claire is blindly romantic, and Rhiannon Sommers makes Mary the most clear-eyed and level-headed of the four. (Also present is the hanger-on and Byron biographer Polidori, Nick Trumble amusingly alternating between moral outrage and lip-smacking envy.)
The four settle into a happy menage, Byron impregnates Claire, Mary writes Frankenstein and the two men debate politics and the poetry of Wordsworth. It's all a bit of a hippie idyll, celebrating them all, and the two men in particular, as moral, poetic and political revolutionaries.
Act Two races through the next six years to Shelley's death, and turns considerably darker.
Byron ages rapidly, his self-dramatising looking ever more ridiculous, while Shelley is even more of a wannabe, now imagining himself a Byronic revolutionary hero. Both women lose a child and are sobered by the tragedy, Mary's once-attractive realism souring into bitterness.
And a new character is introduced, the ghost of Shelley's first wife Harriet, who killed herself after he deserted her, reminding us of the human cost of the feckless foursome's self-indulgence.
It is clear that Brenton wanted us to respect the poets' revolutionary ambitions despite their personal failings, but director Tom Littler and his cast have been unable to bring that half of the play's vision alive. Despite the recitation of chunks of poetry, we never really believe in either of the men as writers, and only Rhiannon Sommers gives us a sense of a real person observing, experiencing and learning from her misadventure.
Bloody Poetry has some fascination as a deconstruction of our romantic image of these characters, but little more.
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Review - Bloody Poetry - Jermyn Street Theatre 2012