We haunt ourselves, and there is a deep abiding question in the text of “Bloody Poetry” about what ought to be feared and what is to be fought for. “Bloody Poetry,” directed by Julia Schultz, is a play of high ideas; from recreating the allegory of Plato’s cave with literal shadows on the wall, or reading entire verses of poetic verse aloud to the audience. The script, written by Howard Brenton, is vivid, with images such as “diseased imaginations” doing a wonderfully apt job of conveying this sense of Romantic idealism translated into a much more substantial world. We feel anguish in the words. Nothing is too hammy or over the top, and yet there is an incredible intensity in the way everything unfolds, especially after the intermission when the lives of the Shelleys begin to collapse.
Any script, no matter how strong, needs actors to realize it, and every single performer truly brings something to the piece. It’s hard to single out one actor from such a distinguished crowd, but Saunder Waterman – whose portrayal of Percy Bysshe Shelley took the audience from dreamer, to husband and revolutionary – holds the action of the play together. Waterman’s Shelley struggles with finding an identity in a world where his poetry is seen as seditious and disruptive. Despite this being very much an ensemble piece, it’s Bysshe’s story throughout, moving forward from his first fateful meeting with Lord George Byron, played by Ben Dunsky, in 1816 to his eventual death at sea. Dunsky brings the appropriate rugged vitality to the role of Byron, and the two actors play off each other quite well. Alexandra Eaton’s Mary Shelley is just as compelling, as she shows us often just why she is at least the intellectual equal to these men. Her relationship with Clair Clairmont (played by Elan Schwartz) is in many ways equally interesting, as the audience sees the deepening misery that these so-called sisters endure. All four have great chemistry onstage, and you really come to understand these characters in a way that is stripped of anything that could be called “fantastic.” Rounding out the cast are Austin Hiltz as Dr. Robert Polidori, and Lisa Corey as Harriet Westbrook, the first wife of Percy Shelley. Both of these characters are shadows in their own right, and yet, through them the audience gets a sense of the kind of impact that these literary greats have had on the lives of those around them. Suffice to say, each and every one of the actors is in fine form here, and they are truly a joy to watch.
In terms of production, it’s clear that Schultz has gone with a “less is more” approach, and it largely works. Her choice to use the smaller, more intimate space of the Red Room as opposed to the pit is a smart one, where some of the scenes might not have translated as well. The lights don’t offend, and the props and costumes convey the right ideas without taking too much attention. The aforementioned “shadows” scene stands out in terms of technical production, in which the four main characters read from Plato and recreate the allegory of the cave by casting shadows on a backdrop. It works quite well, and suitably enough foreshadows Harriet’s death as her silhouette appears at the last moment. Another clever use of the space is the scene where Bysshe and Byron take the boat out, and nearly drown (more foreshadowing). The actors do an admirable job of selling it, and as a result, the scene is made all that much more intense for it.
“Bloody Poetry” sets a definite bar for the KTS this season. By and large, the appeal of this play is being able to see such historical characters boiled down into more flawed, realistic personae. The script is peppered with a few historical references, such as Byron’s passing comment about heading to Greece or Mary’s interest in writing a “monster novel.” That isn’t to say that any viewer needs a complete knowledge of the works and lives of these artists to enjoy “Bloody Poetry.” A great script, some phenomenal acting and canny production choices elevate this play into a highly enjoyable evening.