Plays about writers aren’t automatically interesting. Ordinarily, literary creation doesn’t look like much—a person alone in a room with pen and paper might be writing something amazing, but they also might be composing a grocery list. Bloody Poetry, however, makes excellent theater out of a major exception to this rule. For a short time in the summer and early fall of 1816, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairmont, and William Polidori turned creative writing into a collective practice of subversive intent and revolutionary ambition. Although this UCSB production retains the period elements of the language and the historical context present in Howard Brenton’s script, it jettisons the Regency period costumes in favor of some extravagant looks copped from the late 1970s. For example, Dillon Francis, who plays Percy Shelley, sports a mane of teased blonde hair that would have done the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious proud, and Chelsea Williams, who is brilliant as the delusional yet sympathetic Claire Clairmont, wears a street chic ensemble straight out of Joan Jett’s look book.
The punk costumes and hairstyles in Bloody Poetry are much more than a gimmick. Under the direction of Jeff Mills they help the young BFA actors in the show to establish the curious and unstable mixture of pride and despair that ran through the lives of these historical figures as they negotiated the pleasures and perils of exile. Yes, these swanky aristocrats rented yachts and villas in Switzerland and Italy, but they also had debts and warrants preventing them from returning to England. This is not to mention the possibility that while in their home country the atheist Shelley and the bisexual Byron could have been arrested at any moment for offenses against public morality laws.
Ian Elliott has a grand time as Lord Byron, emphasizing the poet’s puckish sense of humor and cavalier attitude towards fate. Zach Macias gets many of the night’s biggest laughs as the pretentious and ineffectual Romantic wannabe Polidori. Marley Frank is suitably spectral and intense as the ghost of Harriet Westbrook, Shelley’s wife who drowned herself in the Serpentine. But the heart of this drama lies with Percy and Mary Shelley, the profoundly troubled couple who catalyze the movement, such as it is, only to suffer the dire consequences of living so far out on the edge. Quinlan Fitzgerald finds all the right notes in her multifaceted portrayal of Mary. From thrilling freedom to desperate dependency to stubborn resentment—sometimes within a single scene—Fitzgerald never loses the thread of Mary’s humanity. For Dillon Francis, the challenge is somewhat greater, as Brenton’s version of Shelley indulges in some of the more common clichés associated with this difficult writer and mysterious man. He may have been irresponsible and even shrill, but Percy Shelley remains one of English literature’s most valuable resources. Go to Bloody Poetry and you’ll get a feeling for what this antic moment was all about.