'She drowned and I was not told!' is the monstrously self-centred response of Shelley on learning of the suicide of his abandoned wife Harriet in Howard Brenton's 1984 play, given a vigorous and entertaining revival at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Despite dating from a period when most of the young cast hadn't been born, this play comes up fresh as a daisy in a production by Primavera.
The play explores the complex relationships between Byron, Shelley, Shelley's second wife Mary and Claire Clairemont, Mary's sister by marriage, who seems to have shared her favours between both poets. Hovering in the background is Dr William Polidori, officially Byron's doctor but more often the butt of his jokes. Polidori -- this is a peach of a part -- takes his revenge in Brenton's version by spying on the literary foursome and reporting on their scandalous antics to the London papers. The Daily Mail did not exist in 1816, but Brenton rightly takes the occasional liberty with the historical record.
I missed the 1980s heyday of Brenton and other lefty playwrights (remember David Hare?) by living abroad, so apart from his recent play about Harold Macmillan at the National and Ann Boleyn at the Globe, I've seen mostly revivals of his work. What sets him apart to my mind is not subtlety of thought or sophistication of argument, but an unerring sense of what is theatrical, of what works on stage. The dialogue crackles, the characters are fully formed and every scene has a beginning, a middle and an end. Tom Littler's direction is perfectly attuned to the play's virtues and makes the most of the theatre's tiny acting space. Will Reynolds has designed a minimal set that uses delicate projections in black and white to suggest different locations, including Lake Geneva, Dover Beach and the various Italian resorts where the exiled poets met.
Both Byron and Shelley treat their women and children abominably, something which emerges clearly from Brenton's text, although he clearly has a soft spot for both of them, however outrageously they behave. Shelley exclaims: 'Why cannot I have three families or four?' but he is too busy playing the part of the 'unacknowledged legislator of mankind' to care what impact his actions have on others. Dead wives and dead children litter the landscape as Shelley and Byron fight their self-imposed battles against English hypocrisy, the banal poems of ex-lefty traitor Wordsworth and other enemies.
Joe Bannister strikes me as slightly too wholesome to be cast as the fanatical Shelley, and is overshadowed by David Sturzaker, who creates a truly monstrous Lord Byron that is a delight to watch. So is Nick Trumble as Polidori, the hovering gossip, who reminds me of Henry Carr in Stoppard's Travesties -- the nobody whose sole claim to fame is his intermittent contact with people more gifted and more famous than himself. Emily Glenister as Harriet makes the most of a brief appearance as a woman abandoned and about to throw herself in the Serpentine, who haunts the stage for the rest of the play as a silent reminder to Shelley that actions have consequences. Rhiannon Sommers is superb as Mary Shelley, a woman who sees all too clearly what is happening and has the courage to accept it while fighting for her interests. Joanna Christie's Claire, who foolishly imagines she will capture Byron's affections by having his child, balances her perfectly.