Brighton Fringe 2022
Directed and with Set by Sam Chittenden, Lighting by Apollo Videaux; with tech support from the Friends Meeting House. Further productions tba.
‘The world has Shelley, but only I have Percy.’ Straight from her award-winning musical Clean, we’re in more familiar territory with Sam Chittenden, so visceral in raising hare-ghosted landscapes, solitary women, stoical communities and the nocturne edge of magical realism.
Chittenden’s The Last on for two nights at the Friends Meeting House dramatises Mary Shelley’s grief as in 1823, a year after losing her husband the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to drowning, she set to writing her fourth novel.
The Last Man was published in 1826 after Mary Shelley lost not just her husband and three children, but Byron, who after unpromising beginnings became a great friend. Recognisable people – the Shelleys and their children, Byron, Claire Clairmont are pictured within. Their deaths, her grieving finds analogues here. Chittenden frames her drama of the novel bookended by showing how Mary Shelley’s friends live again in fiction.
Featuring Amy Kidd in a one-woman tour de force, it blasts though both stories in just over an hour. There’s contemporary folk music fading out and returning at the end. The lights dim up. They brighten and dim expertly throughout the play.
Kidd first lies wrapped round a black jacket, for a few remarkable minutes before peeling off from it. She stands, jumps down in her white shift and picks a chess board she places to her left on the raised dais. There’s a trunk. She places pawns inside it: the dwindling band of those the narrator Lionel Verney (Shelley herself) holds till they dissolve. To her right sits a red-clothed table; there’s books. Verney owns just a few possessions but soon, maybe the whole hollowed world.
The Last Man features a plague more devastating than any previous, virtually wiping out humanity. It mightn’t seem a promising post-Covid dramatising, but. There’s nothing supernatural in this tale, and the world of 2073-2100 is recognisably that of the early 19th century: balloons, skiffs, its originality lies in it being the very first dystopian fiction, set in the future.
It’s the devastation, not the dials of spacecraft, that Shelley probes: its impact on one person as children, wife, sister, friends, their children, are stripped away. Cut off from all support, Shelley was a very different novelist to the one who wrote her gothic masterpiece Frankenstein in 1817.
Chittenden has expertly distilled a very long three-decker novel into a taut compelling narrative: Kidd keeps a tight expressiveness which explodes just once, yet remains flexible and mobile. She has the knack of projecting romantic dread in a naturalistic manner, as if it’s the default way of looking at a world.
If humour’s inevitably absent, there’s keen evocation of countryside and brilliantly prescient descriptions of the plague creeping closer, a blue-grey-skinned American washed ashore; the disbelief of friends. The way society denies then accommodates. How republican ideals are dropped by democrat leader Ryland, to gain co-operation from aristocrats and then how this all becomes irrelevant. How Britain’s finally abandoned. Chittenden’s cut away vast swathes of description and background (volume One is a travelogue). We have though the story that needs telling.
If it’s a roman a clef you want, apart from Verney, there’s his great friend Adrian (Percy Shelley) who’s a visionary, and only reluctantly a leader. There’s their friend Raymond, more venal and a natural leader: Byron of course, who meets a fiery conflagration heroically. There’s his wife Perdita (Verney’s sister) who can’t bear life without him; that recalls his first wife Harriet, and Mary’s half-sister Fanny, both of whom killed themselves because of Shelley or through circumstances he created. As well as recalling Mary’s other half-sister Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s step-sister; an far more robust loving Shelley and Byron. There’s Evadne too, a Greek, also in love with Raymond and who Adrian’s keen on. This seems to channel the robust side of Claire too. It hardly matters, it’s what Shelley does with her chess pieces that count, and whether any of them breathe life. When fact meet fiction, as a skiff carrying the last three founders, it’s narrated to the quick.
They’re as alive as those in Frankenstein: not so much realised in depth but moral types with flashes of psychological insight and an enormous canvas of apocalypse. Kidd evokes this with a panoramic sweep of arm and voice which she sends soaring but never shrill; you feel Mary Shelley’s been studied here, as well as the personas Kidd invokes including Adrian/Shelley and the pathos of children dying. It’s Shelley’s most sustained flight of dystopia, the world’s first.
What’s been against further recognition is the sheer length of The Last Man. And some of the complicated romances, wars and people going off mad for a bit. Though a great panorama for a TV fantasy franchise, it’s the pith we want and get.
It’s a great story needing filleting. Chittenden’s done a great service not only to this novel, but to the way we imagine; and how Mary Shelley refracts both grief and the memory of loved ones into a work written in part, to keep her and her remaining child alive. As Verney leaves Rome to wander the world for other survivors, you taste the bitters but iron resolution too. And Kidd’s exemplary – not least in that final harrowing return to the writer’s real grief. Superb.