Not only am I a bit of a bookworm, I’m quite stubbornly feminist, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to go see Shared Experience’s new production, Mary Shelley, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. The poster, featuring a dishevelled Kristin Atherton as Shelley staring insolently into the camera, sparked in me a curiosity about this woman, who at just 19, wrote a haunting, classic novel about man’s fascination with creating life.
From the very opening scenes, all eyes are on Atherton, who plays a vibrant, irrepressible Mary, full of dreams and aspirations, and nursing a fervent admiration for the mother she never knew. She’s energetic and wilful and smart, as one would expect the offspring of the feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical political philosopher William Gibson to be.
The setting is fairly domestic, to begin with: Mary, her half sister Fanny and her step sister Claire are reunited when Mary returns from a visit toScotland. The house is all abuzz with news of a visitor: the young, handsome, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who admires Godwin’s politics and wishes to help him out of his debts. Of course, we all know what happens next: Mary and Shelley fall in love, and despite Shelley’s wife and children, decide to go away to be together. When Godwin’s lack of support becomes clear, the pair are forced to run away in the dead of night, taking Claire with them.
It is in the crucial scene where Godwin tells Shelley that his running away with Mary is impossible, that we see his struggle. Years earlier he wrote freely about the affairs his wife (Mary’s mother) had, and then went on to encourage Mary to read all about them. Yet faced with this real, liberal daughter, a product of the upbringing he gave her, willing to run away with a married man, we see how much society has worn his ideals down. He is more sensitive to the pressures of society, and the realities of business than Mary ever will be. He shuts Mary out of his life, and refuses to have any more to do with her.
After this point, Mary seems to fade into the background a little. Perhaps because we never see her talking to anyone outside her family, she seems to lose some of her spark. Poverty and motherhood have matured and changed her. She becomes eclipsed by the other dramas happening around her, and we get caught up in the stories of Claire and Fanny. Claire is played marvellously by Shannon Tarbet – she’s flighty and bubbly and incredibly self-possessed, Meanwhile Flora Nicholson’s Fanny is perfectly kind, gentle and proper. Fanny is overshadowed by both her sisters, and as she becomes increasingly torn between the two halves of the family she almost becomes invisible. I felt for her the most. Her story is the least well known, but it’s the most relatable and the most human, and it’s so sad.
The set is limited but inventive. Shelves packed with books dominate the stage, and a long dining table at the front serves whichever purpose it is called upon for: it is at various times a bed, a boat, a desk or a gravestone. The oversized, eclectic furniture and the imposing bookcases give the whole stage a gothic feel that matches the story so well.
At just about three hours, this isn’t a short play, but it didn’t feel anything like that long. I was completely absorbed in the story and the characters all the way through, which is very rare for me. I never watch a film all the way through, and even at good plays I’m generally clock watching towards the end.
Not everything was perfect; there were moments that rang slightly false, and I would have liked to see a little more of Mary and Shelley falling in love, as it was all a bit sudden for my liking. Regardless, I’d give this a hearty five stars, and recommend it to anyone.
Mary Shelley is at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the Courtyard Theatre until 7th April 2012.