Mary Shelley published 'Frankenstein' almost two hundred years ago when she was just eighteen years old, yet it is burned into our consciousness as though it was only written yesterday, and Helen Edmundson's play explores the circumstances in which the youthful Mary Shelley came to write a novel of such originality and power. The result is an exploration of the philosophical ideas of political anarchism, individual choice and atheism promulgated by her father William Godwin and his circle interwoven with the tangled relationships enveloping the Godwin household; of how these intellectual and emotional forces formed the environment in which her genius was shaped. Godwin's enlightenment ideas ultimately stem from Rousseau's much quoted dictum, "man is born free and is everywhere in chains".
The play asks many questions. What would be the result of discarding all those shackles of the spirit? What responsibility does a creator have for his works? - Or for the children he creates? What are the consequences of producing honest art? Should one draw back, and if so when? Who knows what it is to fathom the universe? Who knows its cost?
This play is a huge challenge for a cast that must constantly switch between high personal emotion and philosophical argument, with a great deal of meat in the text. In their own day the two principal protagonists were larger than life figures, yet Mary was only sixteen when she eloped with the already married Shelley. Shelley was a charismatic and notorious poet, a sort of Ted Hughes of the early nineteenth century; both men wrote brilliantly in their times and left a trail of young women committing suicide in their wakes.
The sixteen year old Mary was played by the even younger Holly Manser who mainly coped well with the complexity of the part, movingly so in the final scene with her father. Time will inevitably mature her vocal range - at times I thought her more Jane Austen heroine than Romantic Rebel - but this was a capable creation. Jordan Mumford had if anything a mightier mountain to climb as Shelley, than whom only Lord Byron was more infamous. Also a recent graduate from the COPS youth group a good performance was weakened by a vocal tendency to slip into a high register in moments of passion, but this was another performance full of future promise and time will improve the vocal range of both these young actors. The sheer scale of these two parts does, however, raise the question of whether these young actors were ready to carry so much weight so soon?
Lauren Maggs was another actor familiar from recent youth productions who gave a convincing portrait of the youngest sister Jane (or Claire). She is persuaded by Mary to accompany her and Shelley on their elopement. Later, Known as Claire Clairemont, she becomes the mistress of Byron and bears him a daughter. The third and oldest daughter Fanny was played by Jo Manser, who was very expressive in a part that required her to be the more down to earth sister, and had the vocal range and acting experience needed as a slightly older actor.
Mark James as Godwin, alternately retreating into his books, writing and grappling with the problems of supporting his family whilst avoiding consignment to the debtors' prison, began rather quietly - perhaps too much so - but evolved and became more weighty as the play progressed, becoming particularly effective in the second act. Christine Mackinven as the second Mrs Godwin anchored the whole play with her strong down to earth portrait of a woman scathing about aspects of the dysfunctional Godwin household. She showed a certain wry black humour; when told Harriet Shelley had drowned herself she asked where. Told "in the Serpentine," she replies "I wouldn't have thought it was deep enough!" with perfect timing and it got its laugh. There was more humour than the midweek audience I was with seemed to notice. Did the cast realise? Overall, I didn't feel the play was securing the audience reaction it should have. Accounts of the original production by Shared Experience speak of audiences leaving the theatre in tears, deeply moved. So what of this production?
The scenery was kept uncluttered. The simple slabs at the back were plain and distinctly 'modern architecture' in feel. The downside of this plain practicality was that the indication of William Godwin's study was so skimpy there was no feel that this was the bookish world of a leading scholar and philosopher of his age; it just needed more books. On the plus side the minimal properties and furniture and practical entrances were a great aid to maintaining pace through numerous scenes.
The opening of the play was too static, with Mary and Fanny just standing talking for what seemed an age; they talked very nicely, but it was difficult to feel engaged and follow the thread. If Fanny had decided to tidy away some books or tea cups as they talked it would have provided business and movement, and indicated visually as well their different personalities.
Indeed, the play was slow to fire up in the first act; 'a good pace' is not always praise. For instance, the scene where the sixteen year old Mary asks her father to allow her to read his frank biography of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, needed more prolonged periods of uncertainty, variation of pace to really tug at the emotions.
After all, the first edition had to have the more frank passages removed before the second went to print Should he be honest and open with Mary, or protect her from the influence of her own mother? It was the pace at which this scene was taken that deprived it of its full impact., it was desperate for some pregnant pauses. Only at the end of the first part, when Christine Mackinven's passionate Mrs Godwin revealed to her own daughter Jane her own tortuous past, did we really get a taste of the power latent in the play.
The second half is charged with dramatic events as we watch the effect on their family of Mary and Jane's departure with Shelley, the birth - and - death of Mary's first child, news of Harriet's suicide, Jane's affair with Byron (her starry eyed " mine is the most notorious poet in the whole world" should have got more of a laugh than it did), Fanny's departure to Wales deprived of her livelihood as a teacher by the well publicised scandals enveloping her family, and in real life because she too secretly loved Shelley, to poison herself. The scene at the end when Mary and her father have come together again was moving and successful. Godwin nervously asks Mary whether he was the inspiration for her monster; she replies "not for the monster; you taught me the monster's desire to love, to be more human".
This was a large and challenging play by an author who has scored at the National with such hits as "Coram Boy", but this production didn't quite cohere. When Shared Experience did the original production audiences came out crying at the end. Here they were silent as they left - there was no buzz when the audience walked away from the theatre after a typical COPS production as there usually is, though this may have improved by the last night. It was perhaps too much for so young a cast to cope with, but I think it is right for them to be given opportunities. They did well, with a piece that in the end was too demanding and I am grateful that COPS give us the opportunities to see challenging recent plays like this.
Finally I would like to persuade COPS to sometimes insert a simple information sheet in the programme for plays with a complicated background like this. Shared Experience gave away a play text to get the message across! Not many people nowadays are familiar with more than that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. It would have helped to know that Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the early feminist book "A Vindication of the Rights of Women", that Godwin's philosophy championed individual liberty, political anarchy and atheism; that Shelley was thrown out of Oxford for co-authoring a pamphlet entitled "The Necessity of Atheism", thus indicating his intellectual debt to Godwin, which he later repays by shouldering Godwin's monetary debts to keep him out of prison. It would have saved a lot of initial puzzling to have been told clearly who were the exact parents of the three half sisters. Even the Daily Mail hasn't run out the dirt on this family just lately. If the audience understand the background before the play starts it makes it easier for the actors to connect with them.
Reviewed by Richard Henderson. Photographs by Steve Beeston.