Byron and Shelley are remembered as men who lived and loved freely; their libertarian way of life was scandalous to conservative England. Though Shelley wasn't the dashing figure that Byron was, he was consumed by an idealistic desire to see a world where men and women needn't worry about social obligations and "outdated" institutions such as marriage. Brenton gets into the down-and-dirty facets of these larger-than-life figures whose vision survives in their brilliant poetry and in historical imagination.
"Slander!" howls Byron when Shelley confronts him with his own reputation as the poster boy for the Romantic Age. A boorish genius, Byron isn't inclined to believe his own press. Brenton reveals the blood and guts beneath the Utopian vision that these men espouse--especially Shelley, who finds that his free-loving has a tendency to leave women irreparably scarred.
Brenton begins his play with the meeting of these minds, as Shelley and Byron spar and banter and exchange verses (their own and those of other great poets) whilst Mary and Claire provide intellectual and romantic counterpoint. A fellow named Polidori, hired by Byron's publisher to be his biographer, soaks this all in, preparing to create the mythology that would arise from their relationships. Like many in the poets' native land, Polidori is both fascinated and repulsed by the atheistic beliefs and "perverted" actions of the group. At one point, he is tied up by the foursome and turned into a metaphorical slave for the purpose of re-enacting "Plato's Cave," in which the philosopher likens humans to slaves trapped in a cave who can see only shadows, never the sun. Polidori is confused by the experience. Who are these strange people who revel in mankind's horrid condition?
In an age when romance is often synonymous with candlelight dinners and soft music, it's exciting to look back to a time when it was all about passion and violence, when depth of feeling went hand-in-hand with depth of thought. Brenton brings out this idea beautifully, and his well-crafted play is done full justice by Synapse Productions. Adrian W. Jones' simple scenic design and Thomas Dunn's lighting create crashing waves and raging thunderstorms as needed (and, of course, they are needed). Jane Shaw's sound design is fantastically eerie. Katherine Hampton's costumes and Michael Friedman's incidental music round out the presentation.
The excellent performers keep their over-the-top characters from going too far over-the-top. Adrian LaTourelle is dangerous and charming as the caddish Byron, and Erik Steele brings an inner strength to the physically weak Shelley. Adrienne Dreiss is especially worthy of praise as Mary Godwin, whom we see conjuring up her frightful monster (she would eventually become famous as the author of Frankenstein) during that fateful summer at Lake Geneva. By all accounts, Godwin was equal in skill and mind to Shelley, sharing his non-conformist vision; it is therefore fascinating to witness her own surprise as she is drawn to domesticity and proposes marriage, desiring to at last become Mary Shelley in name as well as in heart.
There are problems in the play, notably in the second act. Claire is a difficult character to get a handle on; she is presented as the naïve member of the group, and one wonders why the men are so drawn to her. Polidori gets picked on terribly in the first act. He appears in the second act but not, it seems, as himself: Brenton appears to be creating a metaphor for England and Mary Shelley's monster that doesn't quite land. But these are minor flaws in an impressive piece.