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Brighton Fringe 2016

Year Without Summer

Cast Iron Theatre

Genre: Drama, Fringe Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Sweet Waterfront 1, Brighton


Low Down

Andrew Allen writes and directs a new play commemorating the 200th anniversary of the creation of Frankenstein. Cast Iron Theatre bring to Sweet Waterfront 1 the strangeness that was 1816.


Cast Iron Theatre commemorate the 200th anniversary of the creation of Frankenstein, bringing to Sweet Waterfront 1 a play written and directed by Andrew Allen, that reminds us how strange 1816 was.

Though we’re inside a Geneva lodging with a simple chaise-long, as Mary Godwin remarks, it really is a year without summer: Mount Tambora’s eruption darkens clouds over the earth: crops fail, people starve.

More locally Byron writes his end-of-world poem ‘Darkness’ which remarkably – considering Byron strides into the drama – Allen doesn’t use, preferring a sliver of Coleridge’s ‘Christabel‘. This is shrewd: Allen refuses to pull focus onto the poets themselves as neither they nor their poetry are the nub of the play. And as for ‘Darkness’ at one point even Byron remarks every generation likes to imagine Armageddon is theirs to grasp.

This foreboding’s heightened by Byron’s demand that each of them – himself, Shelley, his partner Mary and her half-sister Claire Clairmont as she now calls herself and Byron’s ‘almost-doctor’ Polidori write a ghost story. Dr Polidori in fact did later write up The Vampyre, as seminal in its way as Mary Shelley’s first masterpiece.

The events prompt Mary to thread together what will become Frankenstein. Clues abound: sisters ‘stitched together’, a baby Mary dreams comes back to life when warmed by the fire, and Claire’s presence. It’s not a thesis-play however, and it backgrounds itself as characters take over.

The play opens in a sparring duet between half-sisters. Judey Bignell’s Mary flourishes every wand inch her mother Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter: feminist, bluestocking, accomplished writer, proselytiser of her parents’ free love – both sisters fled abroad with Shelley. However not only does her father not approve of this in his daughter, it seems Mary’s not comfortable either. She’s borne two children, lost one, and that only because Polidori saved him.

Bignell’s crisp diction is not only a joy to hear – it’s rare enough now – it also projects the prim slightly withdrawn, intellectually superior mien of Mary Shelley as she later became, a proto-head schoolgirl. There’s a touch of Mamet’s Boston Marriage about the initial formal exchanges, a watchfulness in Bignell that’s palpably on the alert for trespass or disaster. Bignell manages to look awkward in herself too: every inflection bespeaks knowledge her pretty younger rival can bed both poets and feels comfortable with her sexuality in a way Mary doesn’t. They proceed to score points and familial hierarchies off each other like slivers of flesh.

Like Bignell, Yvette May’s Claire (or Jane as Mary reminds her she was) even looks like her painting, the vivacious consciously sexualised eighteen-year-old desperately attempting to secure Byron if not exclusively then long-term. May’s playful and resentful with him by turns, instinct with abandonment.

Claire, who threw herself at Byron (‘ seeking advice on acting’) has brought this mad bad and exhausting-to-know character into their party. Indeed he rises from behind the chaise-long at this point, comically dominating the conversation till Dr Polidori and Shelley appear.

Miles Mlambo’s Byron not only erupts from the chaise-long, but almost from the imagining heads of the others. Semi-turbaned Mlambo has no option but to play all-out and does so consummately, with lordly voice, a casual tricksy dismissal of lovers and friends when it suits, a man of ultimately neo-classic temper who believes nothing changes so fixes himself with a security the protean political Shelley can never own.

The play’s however not about him but the women, and almost the most impressive element of it is how Allen balances the five parts so adroitly: there’s little duetting, a constant volatility in ensemble, with a long climactic scene playing out with all five.

Daniel Lovett as Shelley and Rich Foyster’s Polidori have more nuance to negotiate. Polidori’s not so well-known a figure and Foyster’s furtive ever-anxious persona well depicts a man with a commissioned secret and devastating news to conceal, which explodes spectacularly in the climactic scene as does news from Claire.

Lovett’s Shelley is handled differently to any depicted Shelley– and makes a magnificent entrance authentically dripping wet from a swim, nakedness only half-covered in towels. This hardly calms Mary’s fears over Claire’s wandering eyes. Nor over Mary’s fears that he’ll drown in a squall – Allen’s script is studded with sly references that those versed will pick up (for instance Claire describes herself as an idiot, the title of a lost story she wrote).

Shelley’s no Ariel here though. His drug dependency at this time as handled by Polidori releases a painicky terror-struck hallucinator also capable of striking Polidori. This shocks because not part of Shelley hagiography, not congruent with what we know. It however does highlight little-known facts around this addictively dark summer.

This is a rightly youthful cast. The actors are relatively or exactly close in age to the characters depicted – Byron’s by far the oldest at twenty-eight, followed by Shelley not yet twenty-four. Lovett’s almost impossible brief is to realize an idealist not yet centred, but creating a flux of becoming as an artist and unravelling as a man. Lovett judders the insecurities though this snapshot gives little sense of Shelley’s visionary gleam that makes him in Byron’s phrase ‘the best of men’ and why Mary loves him. If it did, it might unbalance the play: perhaps the dramatic arc dictates we lack that intimacy between the partners.

Mary nevertheless emerges here the most rounded: from tenderness and competitiveness with Claire – archly mirroring her own words back to her and others raises the most laughter – to a final tender gesture towards a humiliated Polidori, who still saved her son.

Allen returns us after such storms to a sea-changed pair of siblings on a chaise-long. He’s concertina’d dates, kerned facts and moved things forward a little, which works dramatically, its own justification.

Allen directs and lights the show with clean confidence, knowing exactly how to block, place and pace actors. This is a premiere so it may be that the formal elements of dialogue will shift slightly to follow the avowed emphasis on Mary and Claire.

There’s inevitably some comparison with Howard Brenton’s 1984 Bloody Poetry, but this is very different, perhaps taking account of the 2010 discovery of a late, bitterly condemnatory fragment by Clairmont towards the end of her life. It’s perhaps too this spiteful unexpected limning of Shelley that informs Allen’s version. Either way it makes Allen the first revisionist in this field.

Strongly recommended to all those who care for the Romantics, for historical plays, who think alternative living emerged in the 1960s, for the zig-zag stitching of a gothic masterpiece.