With Bloody Poetry, The U of A Studio Theatre series continues to be provocative, in the senses of thought-provoking and disturbing. I felt a little sorry for the person sitting next to me who said to her companion on arrival that she had no idea what it was going to be about and didn’t have time to read the program, and what were they going to see tomorrow, it sounded like something Greek maybe with naked women in it. Oddly, the not-naked theme continued in a conversation I overheard at intermission between different patrons, one of whom explained while eating red licorice that the program said it was actually about naturism. “NATurism??” “No, THATcherism. Like Margaret Thatcher.” “Oh.”
The play, written in 1984 by Howard Brenton, is the story of the Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (Oscar Derkx, who played Jesus in the Studio Theatre production of Last Days of Judas Iscariot) and Lord Byron (Adam Klassen) and some of the women in their lives, Mary Godwin Shelley the writer of Frankenstein (Merran Carr-Wiggin), her stepsister Claire Claremont (Zoe Glassman), and Harriet Westbrook, Bysshe’s first wife (Kelsey Visscher). The other character on stage is Dr. William Polidori (Braydon Dowler-Coltman), Byron’s biographer and physician. The production is directed by Glenda Stirling, the Calgary-based director, teacher, and artistic director of Lunchbox Theatre.
Throughout the play characters pay lip service to the ideals of free love, but they don’t seem to have the same understandings of the concepts of power-balance, autonomy, feminism, and informed consent in relationships that one might expect today. Byron is overtly exploitive and self-centred. Shelley, who is a younger less successful poet, starts out trying to make a good impression on the more famous man, smiling sycophantically and awkwardly agreeing with him. Byron continues to make fun of him about being a teetotaller and a competent sailor, and flirts with him sexually throughout the play. Shelley tries to ignore both the jokes and the advances. It’s easy for the audience to share Shelley’s discomfort at some of Byron’s cruder comments, such as the ones about the venereal diseases he’s experienced.
In some ways Shelley is a more honourable person than Byron: he welcomes Claire and her child into his household, and he pursues Byron to Venice in an attempt to get the child back. But the interactions with his first wife and her ghost show that he basically abandoned her for Mary, and then while he is with Mary he doesn’t seem to care whether she consents to his affairs with various other women. Mary certainly believes that the peripatetic lifestyle that he insists on is a cause for at least one child’s death. Mary’s (Carr-Wiggin’s) facial expression and body language while Shelley made a speech about bourgeois morality showed clearly that she didn’t agree with him and intended to challenge him, and her subsequent challenge had me silently cheering, while he tried to manipulate her by calling her cold and callous. As portrayed in the play, Mary is a stronger and more interesting character than her older step-sister Claire. There are fascinating glimpses of Mary’s own creative process and inner life working on Frankenstein. Claire is just heartbreaking, from her introduction as a naive young woman wanting attention and affection from both Byron and Shelley, her conviction that Byron will marry her, and then her needy clinging to whoever will comfort her.
One of the best bits of staging is the bit where the group acts out the thought-experiment of Plato’s cave, tying up Dr. Polidori in front of a screen and then making shadow plays. The set and blocking made good use of the deep stage space of the Studio Theatre, with lighting and set pieces breaking up the space to create the illusion of people strolling on beaches far away. Costuming was period-appropriate, with women in Empire-waist drapery and men in white hose, breeches, wide-sleeve blouses, and neckcloths. Having worn a dress of that period myself, I was impressed at how the performers experienced the freedom of movement possible in that style of dressing, while never tripping over their full skirts even when dancing recklessly or leaping onto piers.
I tended to focus on the personal side of their convictions and actions, but they also all made speeches about their political and theological disagreements with conventional English society, and about the exigencies of dealing with publishers and funding. They seemed to use the word “libertarian” in senses where I might have used “libertine”, which made me think that to them it was the same thing – and this may express not just the ways in which Shelley’s life hurt the women around him, but many stories of the personal lives of activists in more recent eras.
I’m fascinated by watching this year’s Studio Theatre series build up. The offerings are all challenging for the viewer, presenting different sets of complicated characters in settings I’m not personally familiar with. Bloody Poetry continues until Saturday 7 December with tickets at Tix on the Square and in the New Year there are three more plays in the season.