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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Brenton presents Shelley and Byron as the sort of outrageous celebrities one would today find on the cover of tabloid magazines. Both poets defied coventionl and as the play shows their pursuit of free love (a term coined by Byron) was hardly heroic when judged in terms of the pain caused to wives, lovers and children. By the time we meet the men and their mistresses, they have self-exiled themselves on the shores of Lake Geneva. Shelley has become a notorious atheist (according to his biography the twenty-four-year-old Shelley came to his notoriety by virtue of an incindiery pamphlet "The Necessity of Atheism" and a visit to Ireland where, filled with revolutionary ardor, he addressed the Irish parliament). Robert Southey, who is mentioned several times, was also a poet but one who became a staunch Tory and had pronounced Shelley to be a "base, bad man", dangerous to know despite his genius. The older, hard-drinking, bi-sexual Lord Byron has been dubbed "the brat aristocrat" and voluntarily separated from his wife and England to escape gossip about his incestuous relationship with his half-sister.
The get-together of the poets and their paramours -- Mary, the future Mrs. Shelley, and her stepsister Claire -- sends conversational sparks flying. Poetry, revolution and sexual freedom are discussed, names also in the news are dropped (e.g. poet-critic Leigh Hunt and the aforementioned Robert Southey). But while there are numerous issue-related monologue and duologues, there is also the drama of the ever more knotty tangles that bring bitter consequences for these practitioners of unbridled love.
Claire, the romantic tells us "I lifted my skirt for the good of English poetry " only to find herself abandoned by Byron who grandiosely dismisses his behavior with "My abuse is a gift. It will enrich your diary". Worse still he eventually removes the child of their union from her custody, placing her in a convent where she dies at age five. Shelley's first wife Harriet drowns herself and haunts him and Mary for the rest of the play and to add yet another development, Shelley and Claire, who lives with him and Mary after Byron's desertion, put his belief in free love to yet another test.
The cast of six brings the assorted portraits from the past to life with the competence that one has come to expect from this company. Adrianne Dreiss stands out as Mary. Her constant voice of reason in the face of Shelley's (Erik Steele) incessantly idealistic talk is especially revelatory in a scene at the top of the second act when she proposes marriage as he weeps and wails about his wife's suicide. Though it's not part of her story in this play, Mary was to become even more famous than her husband with her creation of Frankenstein (the classic icon of gothic literature was in fact borne during a story writing contest proposed by Byron during a stormy summer evening).
Among the disappointments in the performances is Adrian La Tourelle's tendency to be more belligerently Napoleonic than Byronic and Michelle Federer's ghostly Harriet who could use a little more of the manic fire of the wife in the attic of Jane Eyre. On the other hand, Omar Metwally adds a nice touch of sly nastiness as Polidori, who was in fact Byron's physician but who here serves as a paparazzi style narrator who disdains but also envies these convention defying creative geniuses.
As Mary Shelley became famous in her own right, Byron's estranged wife was an heiress and mathematician whom you may recall as a character in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. That splendid play is now old enough to fit the Synapse mission of "distinctive productions of classic theater". It might be an apt future undertaking for the company.
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