Sunday, 12 February 2012

Theatre review: Bloody Poetry

Howard Brenton wrote Bloody Poetry in 1984 as a reaction to Thatcher's government and what he saw as the "shredding" of England's radical tradition. So his play, revived here by Tom Littler at Jermyn Street Theatre, goes back to the Romantic Poets to remind us of the revolutionary, partner-swapping atheists behind one of the country's most influential literary movements. The focus of the story is on Percy Bysshe Shellley (Joe Bannister) and his "menagerie." As the play begins it's 1816 and he's accompanied to Lake Geneva by Mary (Rhiannon Summers,) already being referred to as his wife, even though his first wife Harriet is still alive; and Mary's stepsister Claire (Joanna Christie - I totally didn't twig she was the girl from Equus, I think I was distracted by how much she looks and sounds like Sarah Hadland.) Though this isn't just a love triangle, complicated as it is by Lord Byron who knocks Claire up, as well as occasionally trying his luck to see if Bysshe might consider giving boys a go. Bysshe is like a sulky, emo adolescent, in contrast to David Sturzaker's bombastic rock star Byron - when we first meet them, the other three are very much like stalkery fans, going to the hotel they know Byron likes in the hope he'll turn up and befriend them.

Turn up he does, and the first act is largely made up of their famous time there when Mary got the idea for Frankenstein. John Polidori (Nick Trumble,) Byron's personal physician and full-time whipping-boy, is at first the most identifiable figure among these self-styled intellectual deities, but as his bitterness gradually consumes him he becomes obsessed with getting the last word, by being the one whose version of the encounter will survive through the ages. (There does seem evidence that relations were sour between him and the others; here Mary is the most friendly of the quartet towards Polidori, but in reality she named a Frankenstein villain after him, a slight for which he never forgave her.)

This is the more entertaining act but there's power to the second as well, as the poets' idealistic, communal utopia inevitably proves hard to maintain happily. Bysshe and Byron may laugh off their endless venereal diseases but the former partners and resulting children piling up in their wake bring heartbreak of their own. It's interesting that Shelley's first wife Harriet (Emily Glenister,) never seen in the first act and rarely mentioned while alive, is a much more frequent ghostly presence on stage once dead. Will Reynolds' set (he also provides understated black and white projections) includes a little channel of water at the back, bringing onstage an element that is not only a recurring theme but also claims the lives of two of the characters. There were occasional scenes of Bloody Poetry that dragged out for me, but it remains an interesting look at how, though it may not have led to long, uncomplicated lives, the country's most iconic works of aren't weren't made by reactionaries. (And bonus points to Howard Brenton for happily admitting to veering slightly from historical fact, just for the sake of getting in a few digs at the Daily Mail.)

Bloody Poetry by Howard Brenton is booking until the 25th of February at Jermyn Street Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.


  1. I love how you suddenly seem to have the answers to all my questions.

    1. And slightly before you ask them, which is particularly clever of me.