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Five Reasons to See ... Mary Shelley

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Mary Shelley opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on 16 March and runs until 7 April, followed by a national tour. It is directed by Shared Experience’s Artistic Director, Polly Teale (After Mrs Rochester, Mine), who spoke to Sue Casson during rehearsals.

1. It’s a brand new play written by Helen Edmundson (whose work includes adaptations of Mill on the Floss and Swallows and Amazons)

Polly Teale: “We did a scratch promenade performance of an early draft of this play at the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Transform festival in 2011, which really enriched the production and set design. It’s wonderful material with lots of different aspects. Helen Edmunson’s worked with Shared Experience quite a lot and has written a wonderful play for us, which I’m sure will have lots of future life beyond the current production.”

2. It’s based on historical characters and events

PT:Mary Shelley was clearly a remarkable, complex personality but all of the characters – Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley – are seminal figures in their own right. You could have a play about each of them. Like all good characters, they are complex and somewhat contradictory. There’s a wealth of, sometimes contradictory, biographical information about them, and it’s very useful for the actors to have a knowledge of their character’s back story and a detailed sense of their world, though sometimes you simply have to say: OK, what’s our version of this character?

We’ve done a lot of sharing of research so it’s a kind of living history lesson, the political and historical background’s are fascinating. Mary Wollstonecroft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman(1792) and William Godwin’s An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) were both published around the time of the French Revolution so there was a feeling that the old orders and hierarchies were falling away to make way for a more egalitarian society, but because the French Revolution ended in such bloodshed, there was a real backlash against it. The British government became quite reactionary and passed many laws that meant that writing anything critical of the government or perceived to be radical could lead to transportation or imprisonment, so it was a very serious undertaking.”

3. It’s performed by Shared Experience, a company internationally renowned for their highly physical interpretations of classic novels

PT: “The play was written specifically for Shared Experience. There’s a whole sequence of Mary’s dreams, so it was very exciting for us as a company finding the physical language to present this on stage. Shared Experience recently lost its core funding which has affected us enormously and we don’t know whether we’ll survive as a company.

We’re doing everything we can to keep going but it’s a real challenge and, at present, we only have enough funding for this production. The future’s very uncertain. I find this shocking, given the quality of our work and the fact that we’re one of the few companies run by women that puts women’s lives centre stage. It’s still the case that far more plays are written by men and there are far more parts for men. Given the gender imbalance in the industry, it seems bizarre that our funding’s been cut because I think that Shared Experience are really trying to present something different.”

4. It deals with ’modern’ issues

PT: “It’s fascinating to reconnect with these ideas in our current climate. Mary and Godwin both believed that there should be no ownership of property and longed for a far more collective, consensual society, that wasn’t based on a few people with power keeping the rest of the population in its place. Godwin believed that education and understanding can bring out people’s innate sense of responsibility and goodness.

The play also deals with the beginning of feminism, so it’ll be a very rich evening with lots of different hooks that hopefully won’t feel like a history lesson. There was a huge gap between rich and poor at that time, and a sense that the capitalist system, built on acquisition, was in meltdown. These people were trying to find an alternative, more communal, consensual and holistic way of living. They were vegetarians and wouldn’t eat sugar because it came from the colonies where the slaves were, so lots of their issues remain recognisable today. It was a time of recession, and the family are in terrible debt, fearing a visit from the bailiffs and wondering if they’ll survive. Godwin’s really down on his luck and the family’s struggling to cope financially.”

5. It’s a cracking story about a nineteenth century teenager, who eloped with a poet aged 16, and wrote the controversial Gothic novel, Frankenstein, aged 19

PT: “The play’s also a compelling epic piece of storytelling with lots of twists and turns. It’s a love story, and the complex relationship between the teenage Mary and her father is central. It focuses on the tension between their radicalism, beliefs and ideas and the reality of what’s possible in an imperfect world, where people are flawed and fallible and the systems around them force them to compromise.

Godwin believed absolutely that every individual should respect each other’s autonomy and individuality but, when Mary eloped with Shelley, he was highly punitive. He didn’t see her for three years and cut her off, so it’s interesting to see that someone may have conscious beliefs but that something very different may emerge when life throws something at them that’s painful and difficult. Mary was only 16 when she rowed across the English Channel with Shelley in the middle of the night, so they were pretty rebellious!

In many ways, the play presents the story of a modern, dysfunctional family with lots of teenage friction. No two children in the family have the same parents, so it feels very modern and there are all kinds of tension and sibling rivalry. The rivalry between Mary and her stepmother’s central, so you could be sitting in a contemporary family kitchen and hear similar arguments!”


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