Mary Shelley. Shared Experience Nottingham Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Playhouse at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. 05-04-12

The essence of love is freedom.  Percy Bysshe Shelley

Kristin Atherton as Mary Shelley and Ben Lamb as Percy Shelley.
Production photograph by Robert Day.

The first thing that I would like to say about Mary Shelley, a co-production between Shared Experience, Nottingham Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Playhouse, is that it is, first and foremost, a very clever piece of writing by Helen Edmundson, economical, sparse and true. This is important given the subject matter- a lot of writers would have failed to make it live. It is a real joy to see a production which is underpinned by such a firm foundation and it gives the actors the best chance that they could possibly hope for. The subject matter is the birth of Mary Shelley’s creative imagination. She returns home to the stifling claustrophobic rooms above her father and stepmother’s failing bookshop, bursting into the heart of a bitter marriage and filling her sisters with fresh ideals and new ideas after spending time in Edinburgh. She is now a sixteen year old on the verge of womanhood, no longer a child, and she is ready to charge the barricades against her stepmother and the family’s repression of the memory of her mother. When she meets young Percy Shelley, who is fiercely amoral, handsome and single-mindedly creative, the blue touch paper is lit. Nothing is ever going to be the same. Her own creative fire is now burning, but at great cost to herself and her family, and the play is an examination of whether this cost is ever worth paying. Should one person’s pursuit of their own need for creativity, however talented they are, give them permission to ignore the needs and desires of those around them? It is a big subject.

William Chubb as William Godwin.
Production photograph by Robert Day.

There are some fine performances. Mary herself is played by Kristin Atherton with a luminous joy and energy that allows you to believe in her talent, and Shannon Tarbert as her young step sister Jane portrays a wayward young woman who is carried along by those around her and doesn’t really think too deeply about anything. She is very much her mother’s daughter, and Sadie Shimmin as Mrs Godwin shows us what she may become. Mrs Godwin is not an easy woman, but we can see exactly why this is in Sadie Shimmin’s performance. There is a touching desperation behind her complaints and grumbles which makes her live as a real person. Ben Lamb is a talented and stylish young actor and I liked his performance as Percy Shelley very much but I felt that there was a hint of danger missing there. Shelley was a prodigiously talented young man who was prepared to destroy other people’s lives to get what he wanted, both emotionally and creatively, and for me this ruthlessness was not quite at the heart of his performance. The two performances which I fell in love with were William Chubb’s as William Godwin, Mary’s father, and Flora Nicholson as Mary’s half sister Fanny.William Chubb has great timing and his performance was full of irony and understatement. As you watched him you could see the wheels of his characters mind working and it doesn’t get much better for an audience than that. Very fine work indeed- particularly in his final scene with Mary. When it came to the cost of Mary’s creativity it was her sister Fanny who really ended up paying the greatest price. Watching her selfless dedication to her family at the cost of her own dreams- dreams which it didn’t occur to anyone else that she might have- and her final heartbreak when she realised that she simply couldn’t break free and join the lifestyle that Mary, Percy and Jane had embraced, even though she had thought that she was prepared to do just that, was enough to break your heart. I was near enough to the front to see her tears so I know.

Kristin Atherton as Mary Shelley and Flora Nicholson as Fanny Godwin.
Production photograph by Robert Day.

There is some wonderful trademark Shared Experience movement work, mostly by Flora Nicholson, and some powerfully expressive moments such as the dead baby who came back to life in Mary’s dream and vanished in the unwinding of a sheet. I would have liked much more of this. Those kind of ideas and expressionism could have been pushed much further in the telling of a story of this kind. The set is a claustrophobic array of bookcases covered in books and papers, a futile intellectual barricade against the unstoppable rush of emotions which is unleashed by Mary’s meeting with Shelley and a constant reminder of the weight of the past. Polly Teale has great taste in the way she has directed material which needed to be delicately handled and the whole piece zips along very nicely. This is a cracker of a story very well told and I’m glad that I had the chance to see it.

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The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Shared Experience at the West Yorks Playhouse. 15-10-09

Brecht is not one of my favourite playwrights. It’s all a bit too hectoring and didactic. I understand that he wants his audience to stand back from the characters and judge their actions rather than identifying with them so much that you forget what he is trying to teach you, but I would rather learn in my own way from the characters by identifying with them in exactly the way he doesn’t want me to. All the same, it’s theatre and I really like Shared Experience so there I was, in the middle of a matinee audience full of young teenagers who were ready to howl with laughter every time the cynical debased soldier said dickhead and wolf whistle at the sight of a man sitting in a bath. I would say that they need to grow up but probably that’s what they were there for.

Photograph by Keith Pattison.

There was a lot to enjoy, especially when the stronger writing kicked in in the second half and the two 24 carat performances were able to come into their own. James Clyde had enormous presence, attack and control as the singer and Azdak the judge and Matti Houghton made a very touching and heartfelt Grusha, making the most of the fact that she was the only actor allowed to stay absolutely inside her character for the whole play. It was a relief to be able to take her side and stand with her against all the cynicism which threatened to destroy her.
The chorus of local people were very good and worked especially well with James Clyde. Thankfully I managed to keep my envy of the fact that they were up there on stage singing and reacting under control- I’d have loved to be sitting with them.
There was some wonderful use of puppetry as the child grew up. The moment when he walked into the courtroom and we saw him on his feet for the first time drew gasps of pleasure from the audience and the company really made him live. Lots of  nice touches in the staging too- a river made from a long cloth unrolled at speed in shades of blue, Grusha crossing a ravine with two ropes and some strobe lighting, and a huge effigy of a murdered judge built around a surgical stand which could be pushed around at speed. There was also a bag of rehydration fluids attached to the judges chair (which was a barbers chair- echoes of Sweeney Todd) and I thought that was very telling.

I suppose my two reservations were that I really don’t think the writing in the first half is always strong enough and there were a few of the cast who couldn’t quite achieve the control needed to play the character and stand apart and play the message at the same time. I think that’s probably a very difficult trick to pull off.

A really worthwhile afternoon then, especially if a few of those kids who were so irritating grow up to love theatre and be annoyed in their turn.

Mine. Shared Experience. West Yorkshire Playhouse. 20-11-08

The story of a very wealthy infertile couple who go through the adoption process to adopt a baby whose mother is a drug addicted prostitute. During the process the woman (who has no name) questions their lifestyle, their right to take the baby away from the mother, who is a naturally caring mother even though she isn’t stable enough to cope, and her relationship with her own mother who turned her into the neurotic anal high achiever that she has become.

I really enjoyed this. Very well written indeed, although it didn’t always avoid cliche in the scenes between the woman and the man and between the woman and her mother. It was a good device theatrically to use the child in the dolls house (great performance) as a symbol for the woman in her own childhood, the adopted child when it was older, and as a demonstration of the womans thoughts and fears. A lot of the cliches which might have spoiled things were avoided by an almost dance like connection between the woman and the child when emotions were running high, rather than dialogue. The acting was uniformly excellent, although the woman’s mother came off worse simply because her dialogue wasn’t quite as good. Loved the image of the dolls house, and how they used it. It was a beautiful set too, a set of simple glass sliding screens which formed the walls of a minimalist architect designed house and which could have moving images projected over the whole length of them.

As someone who knows a fair bit about infertility and adoption and the toll it takes on people I would have been down on this play like a ton of bricks if it hadn’t been honest and heartfelt, but it was. The young students in the row behind me who had some fairly inane things to say in the interval were amazed when one of their number was absolutely distraught at the end. I wasn’t. She was obviously a lot brighter and more sensitive than her friends.