The summer of 1816 holds a treasured place in the annals of English literary history. It marked the coming together of two of the nation’s foremost poets in Lake Geneva: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord George Byron, once famously described by Lady Caroline Lamb, in what has become his seductive sobriquet, as Mad, Bad and Dangerous to know.
Bloody Poetry is revived at the wonderfully charming Jermyn Street theatre; a small venue that represents much of what is captivating about London’s blossoming fringe theatre circuit. It is no surprise, then, that the venue was named Fringe Theatre of The Year at The Stage 100 awards.
As well as Byron and Shelley, the play features Claire Clairemont (a lover of both the poets) and Mary Shelley, who finds the inspiration to write her classic horror novel Frankenstein whilst in Lake Geneva. The quartet become ever more entangled in each other’s lives until finally they are acrimoniously dispersed.
Directed by Tom Littler, the play was written by Howard Brenton in 1984 and blends humour with an intimate insight into the lives of the Romantics. This fusion comes to a facetious climax when Byron irately rejects suggestions that he is ‘Europe’s greatest romantic poet’.
Byron – played brilliantly by David Sturzaker – is raffish and depraved, leaving the audience in no doubt as to the veracity of Lady Caroline Lamb’s description. His decadence traverses time and place, as the play moves from 1816, to 1818, and finally to 1822, taking the scene from Switzerland to Italy via England.
There is a tension throughout the play between Byron’s apathetic cynicism and Shelley’s fervent radicalism, the latter being chided by the former, his hero. It is not all humour, however, as tragedies afflict the group and the play shows that romanticism itself is not flawless and sometimes, to the contrary, flawed to tragic effect.
When he wrote it in 1984, Brenton said it was against a backdrop of an overwhelming electoral victory for the Conservatives “when Margaret Thatcher set about shredding what was left of England’s radical, republican tradition”. Eighteen months into this Conservative-led coalition’s term in power, this is a timely and well-done revival that has much to say on the role of the radical in contemporary society.