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.