Friday, 22 June 2012

"They're livin' it up at the Hotel Diodati.." Mary Shelley the play, Robert Harris's Fear Index

 I like a bit of theatre and really make an effort to get friends out to good theatre events. On my birthday in the past we've all had a lot of fun (post pub) at great London nights out such as Woman in Black and Shockheaded Peter.

I've had a bad run on this in the last couple of years though. I thought the highly rated Jerusalem (to be used as the basis for the Olympic ceremony I understand) was just about the most over-rated live event I've ever seen in any form. As someone who has lived on Exmoor for about 15 years, I found Jerusalem's depiction of rural England ludicrous, with some truly repellant characters that showcase some of the worst aspects of modern England while remaining farcically niave about others. Fantastic acting performances but I hated it with a passion.

Last year I finally worked up the enthusiam again for another play but unfortunately chose Chicago (the musical). I blame too much time on the tube system, passing posters that suggest a kind of theatrical Sin City set to Cotton Club era music. Instead I found myself in something that was more like "Graham Norton's Bugsy Malone XXX". I've never been more embarrassed to be in an audience in my life.

So, for live drama, it has been a while. Luckly, Helen Edmundon's Mary Shelley, which I saw last Saturday night at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, has broken the duck.

It was a impulse decision. as it was only walking distance from where I'm staying. I txted a friend, "It had better have drugs and at least one monster in it" It didn't have either but is well worth seeing anyway.

Compared to other dramatisations of the era this is more straight biopic and it benefits from a more sober approach. The lives of the Godwins and the Shelley's, two generations of radical rock star thinkers of their era, hardly needs exaggeration. The lives of these people glow with such creativity that their actual living reality seems like an extreme plot from a Bronte/Thomas Hardy parody.

Still recovering from the death of the suicide of their proto-feminist mother Mary Wollstonecraft, the three teenage daughters of radical thinker William Godwin find themselves playing host and falling in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Godwin's spiritual air. Enormous schandal follows. Eventually two of the three will find themselves on the shores of Lake Geneva at the Villa Diodati taking laudanam with Lord Byron, in a famous ghost story writing competition which will inspire some of the greatest monsters of literary history.
One of the sisters will commit suicide.
Mary, as a teenage single mother, will write Frankenstein. (Also, less well known, The Last Man, the first post apocalypse novel).

Ken Russell's Gothic covers the Villa Diodati part of the saga as if loaded on laudanam itself. I've seen this movie (I was at the London Prem at the Adelphi actually) in all states of disrepair, and disrepair is definately the best way to see it. Sadly missed Natasha Richardson is excellent as Mary but it probably it does the epochal late-niter no favours as a serious subject.

Helen Edmundonsons current play, which has been running for some time up North, very sensibly restricts iself to events from the Home Front, the Godwin's home in Skinner Street in London, stopping before the publication of Frankenstien.
Kilburn walk back from Tricycle

There is enough soap opera incident in these characters to fill three series of HBO saga. It doesn't need to cover the work of the Godwins, The Shelley's and Byron in any detail and wisely restricts itself to the effects of the ideas themselves. From the perspective of the poor parents Shelley is more like a cult leader, a David Koresh or Jim Jones, spiriting half of their family away to become part of his 'community' (along with the children of his other conquests) while leaving poor Fanny trapped in a prison of her own social responsibility.

Lord Byron and the Ken Russell events of Switzerland are kept completely completely off stage leaving a a tragic Thomas Hardy-esque saga to unfold before us. The actresses covering the daughters, Kristin Atherton as Mary, Shannon Tarbet as Jane and Flora Nicholson as Fanny are all convincing, funny and heartbreaking when they need to be. (Flora Nicholson particularly). Direction is tight and design is involving without being a distraction.

Negatives? Mrs Godwin character grates badly (the writing, not the actress I think). Also the atempt at the end to tie up the effects of the radical thought on the family seems contrived. The one thing Gothic got right was a chilling ending showing the morbid, tragic fates of those involved. I wish Mary Shelley had tied things up as neatly, but overall I would regard it a big success.

While appreciating the novelty of this story being told from the Godwin's perspective I was still a bit childishly dissapointed that all the interesting stuff with Lord Byron and the Villa Diodati happened off stage.

By a coincidence I'm just coming to the end of Robert Harris's The Fear Index , which IS set in Geneva Switzerland, a near future Switzerland were the souless high finance equivalent of Skynet and the Forbin Project is about to crash the world.

The power of the Fear Index is that it is not near future however, and the algorithmic tradiing system which is manipulating the worlds financial markets to clean up on bets made against the chaos is actually happening all around us now. And if the AI Gordon Gecko's in Harris's novel i not alarming enough perhaps the knowledge that human beings are doing the same thing as I'm writing this is even worse than Harris's fiction.

Fear Index is a thrilling read you will likely devour, horrfied, in record time. It will tell you more about the Darwinistic forces in modern finance than you want to know, and like the Villa Diodati experience of Mary Shelley and co it reminds us that beneath the surface of Geneva swim some very dark creatures of the human subconscious. Harris knows he is swimming in the same chilled lake water as the Shelley's, Polidori and Byron as he includes his own Dr Polidori character, and the seedy Geneva hotel where main character meets his own monster called 'Hotel Diodati'.

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