‘Mary Shelley’ was essential viewing for us, being the latest production to come from Shared Experience, who seem to have developed a niche market in dramatising the creative processes of great writers, most notably in Bronte. ‘Mary Shelley’ could even be considered the prequel, given that Emily Bronte was born in the same year that ‘Frankenstein’ was published.
In this play by Helen Edmundson, we learn about the early life of Mary Shelley, daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and author of ‘Frankenstein’ at just 19 years old. Here, Edmundson has concentrated on the relationships and psychological development of the author to find the clues to her greatest creation, leaving it to the end to allude to the work and what may have inspired it. This is a tightly written play with clear story-telling, where every character is richly detailed, full of drama and conflicts, as well as a good deal of humour.
Polly Teale (who previously wrote ‘Bronte’ for Shared Experience), directs this production with a light touch, giving us a strong sense of the social context of Mary Shelley’s life, in particular her ‘non-traditional’ family, comprising a step-mother, half-sister and step-sister, not to mention the ever-present ghost of her mother. She makes excellent use of Naomi Dawson’s design, with bookshelves dominating the set, and a long dining table serving as a boat, dock, bed and hotel room. The setting gives a sense of the constant intrusion of the mundane into Mary Shelley’s life, and the endless compromise which her father describes as an ailing relative who occupies a secret room in the house.
As we have come to expect, the six-strong cast are excellent: Kristen Atherton and Flora Nicholson as Mary and her half-sister Fanny, previously seen by us as two of the Bronte sisters, deliver powerful performances, playing out their contrasting fates, whilst the relatively inexperienced Shannon Tarbet as the youngest sister Jane gives a remarkably assured performance, wittily showcasing her character’s lack of self-awareness. Ben Lamb as Percy Shelley is every parent’s worst nightmare – gorgeous, passionate, a believer in free love…..and married with children. Somehow he managed to convey the character with such conviction that whilst we cringe at his behaviour, we sympathise with his motives. As Mary’s father, William Chubb delicately portrays a man struggling to live up to his ideology, trying to give his three daughters the best start in life whilst being unable to give them the emotional warmth they crave. Sadie Shimmin as Mrs Godwin, vilified for being sensible and a non-philosopher, embodies many of the qualities that the others endlessly talk about – integrity, loyalty and consistency.
At nearly three hours, the play is an engrossing journey into the world which helped to nurture one of greatest works of modern literature. Considering how much of the play is concerned with books and literature, the absence of quotations from the original works was notable, and we assume a deliberate choice (perhaps the author assumes familiarity with the works in question). We would have liked to hear some of Shelley’s poetry to fully understand the depth of his talent, and on a similar note, we craved just a flavour of the voice of the monster, to bring out more of the emotion which Mary cannot express in life.
Nevertheless, it is gratifying to see Shared Experience still thriving as a company, producing original and intelligent work, and continuing to offer actresses the chance to shine without excluding men, despite ACE’s attempts to starve it of funding. We look forward to seeing more of them soon.