As the audience enters the Performing Arts Theater for the opening night of Howard Brenton’s play, Bloody Poetry, they eye the ominous blue tarp covering the center of the auditorium, weary that it is an indication of the mess to come. Instead, what pours forth from the six University of California, Santa Barbara B.F.A. students that bravely portray the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Dillon Francis), Mary Shelley (Quinlan Fitzgerald), Claire Clairemont (Chelsea Williams), Lord George Byron (Ian Elliot), Dr. John William Polidori (Zach Macias), and Harriet Westbrook (Marley Frank) is a soulful performance that leaves the members of the front row moved but un-splattered.
Director Jeff Mills leads his cast through the dark and twisted tail of the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his two lovers, Mary Shelley and her step-sister Claire Clairemont, as they flee their home in England to meet the famous Lord Byron in Geneva for what they feel will be a poetic encounter. While three of the greatest writers of the romantic period enjoy their summer of free love and philosophizing on borrowed money, reality creeps upon them, rearing its ugly head in understated forms throughout the play before finally taking over.
The most distinct decision Mills makes with the presentation of this play is to add a British punk twist. From the music throughout the play, the backdrop, and most notably the costume design of the characters, the punk style transports Bloody Poetry not only from the Romantic Period and into the 1970s, but also into a timeless story of anti-establishment emotions. The dissonance between these classic romantic celebrities and the British punk rock era created an odd world that did not resemble any real time in history, and in this way could represent a metaphoric state of rebellion.
The radical political, social, and religious sentiments of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron fit perfectly with the punk attitude in a surprising way. Each of the characters was transformed, bringing an ironically dark humor to the play. Lord Byron’s presence pervades the stage, presenting a wild yet convincing breadth of character so as not to be outdone by his cheetah scarf, metallic nail polish, yellow eye shadow, mohawk, and leather boots. Each character’s costume is more surprising than the next, from fish net stockings to bright pink hair, but the tone somehow fits easily with their attacks on the institution of marriage and call for a physical uprising.
A careful harmonization of pulsing lights and harsh punk music set the tone of struggle and strife as the characters fight to attain a romantic ideal life despite the reality that haunts them. The minimal set is adorned accordantly with the British punk theme, featuring graffiti, a plank, and a bare mattress. The play’s heavy use of descriptions, the lighting and sound effects, and the characters’ convincing performances play well off of the minimal background to create a true imagination of the locations the play transports the audience to, from England to Switzerland to Venice.
I was surprised by the amount of humor in a play that was so dark, which I think was created by the punk rock aspect as well as the richness of each character. There was plenty of wit and banter to go around, and Polidori provided the role of comic relief as he lurked on the edges of the quartet’s revelry, wishing desperately to be part of the romanticized version of their lives. Along with the comedy, the moments of horror and despair were very well done, such as in the case of Harriet’s monologue, when actress Marley Frank stood in the aisles with every eye in the house riveted to her.
In a story full of sexism and centered on Percy Bysshe Shelley, I felt the women really brought the play together by bringing not only huge talent, but also reality to the characters that might have been missing. Lord Byron and Bysshe are played as enigmas, but their interactions with the women in their lives provide a sense of reality to their personas. Bysshe seems to see himself as a sort of hero, calling for a revolution and arguing against the great philosophers, but it is Mary Shelley who brings him down to earth with her wit and reason. The interesting juxtaposition of the ironic humor of the characters with the cruel reality of their lives as starving poets with dying children, sewn together with poetic, witty, and fierce dialogue, creates a truly moving piece of theater.