Shared Experience Theatre Company tells the remarkable story of Mary Shelley, daughter of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the controversial political philosopher William Godwin, in this excellent play by Helen Edmundsen.
Wollstonecraft has died when the action starts, so Mary lives with her father and stepmother, the not-wicked-but-quite-difficult Mrs Godwin, and two stepsisters. They try to eke out a living from their children’s bookshop. Enter Percy Bysshe Shelley, drawn to the Godwin household to meet and debate with William, and making a very good impression on William’s stepdaughters Fanny and Jane, who agree with each other that Percy is ‘vibrant’.
But our Percy is more smitten by daughter Mary, then only 16. Controversially, Percy is married with a child and another on the way, and we learn from William that he has seduced another married woman a few months earlier. Nevertheless, Mary reciprocates Percy’s feelings and agrees to elope and leave for France together with Jane (who eventually marries Lord Byron). Mary is soon pregnant by Percy. Jeremy Kyle would have told him to ‘put something on the end of it'.
Unfortunately, that’s about as far as we got, because one of the cast members, Flora Nicholson, who plays stepsister Fanny and, very physically, the ghost of Mary Wollstonecraft, collapsed with heat exhaustion during the interval and had to go to hospital, so the performance was abandoned at that point. This was a sensible precaution but nevertheless a disappointment, for the play was really good and the second half promised to be even better. Hopefully, Flora has recovered now and will be able to continue with the remaining performances.
The programme included the text of the whole play, so I was able to find out how it turned out, including references to Frankenstein, which Mary wrote when she was still only 19. However, her writings are not central to the play. The main dramatic tensions come from Mary’s relationships with members of her family and in particularly the conflict with her father over the elopement and Mary’s broken promise not to go away with Percy. The consequences of Mary’s estrangement from her father are explored effectively by the talented cast; Edmundsen’s writing providing them with ample opportunities to shine.
This production is well worth seeing, so I hope to catch up with the second half soon.