As an “inveterate reader of plays,” Tom Littler first read Bloody Poetry, Howard Brenton’s 1984 play dealing with the younger generation of Romantic poets about a year ago. Being a great admirer of Byron and Shelley, particularly the latter, “I liked how Brenton had picked upon the less apparently glamorous writer. When you start to read about Shelley, you realise that you could write ten plays about his life. There are so many extraordinary episodes, including weird assassination attempts in communes he tried to set up in Wales, and writing pamphlets in Ancient Greek.”
Richard Holmes’s biography of Shelley, on which Brenton’s play is based, was an important starting point for the company, but the research quickly moved in all directions. The early nineteenth century has become uncannily tangible and Littler, perhaps revealingly, talks about the group in the present tense. “You can get so close to these people as they were always writing about themselves and how they wanted to be seen. It’s very revealing when they write about small things, and the way that they write without much punctuation. All the scenes in the play are based on diarised and letter-recorded events and two of them are based on poems. We’ve underpinned the production with tiny details, most of which are too small to be noticeable, but in terms of creating a world, it really helps.”
Brenton attended several rehearsals and was available for consultation during the pre-production period. “Everyone always tells you that Howard Brenton is one of the nicest writers in theatre and it’s absolutely true. He’s a real actors’ writer; he gets what makes actors tick and what they need, and what kind of notes are helpful.” Littler’s Byron, David Sturzaker, will be starting rehearsals for Henry VIII in Brenton’s Anne Boleyn next week and Littler remarks, “I’ll be monitoring his performance carefully to make sure he doesn’t get too beardy and there are no drumsticks on stage.” Brenton’s Henry VIII is quite different to the monster of legend, but both certainly are characters whose reputations precede them.
Like Brenton, Littler has also fallen in love with the “amazing, brave and pioneering” members of the Shelley-Byron circle and the way in which they complement each other. “They all have different viewpoints: Claire Clairemont is so brave and lives her life in the way she wants to, or at least the way she thinks it ought be lived. Shelley is trying to write and act as if he were free. Mary is always aware of the problem of living in the world and so is Bryon, in a different kind of way. They’re like a string quartet and if you take one away they don’t work.” This co-dependency has rubbed off on the exceptionally close-knit cast, as “We had a few days of rehearsal when one of the actors was away and it completely fell apart, even the scenes that that actor wasn’t in because there was a missing energy.”