Bloody Poetry

Written by Howard Brenton

Thurs 18th - Sat 20th September & Tues 23rd - Sat 27th September 1997

Directed by Andy Rees

Percy Bysshe Shelley and his mistress meet Lord George Byron in Italy. They live in a commune of free love, writing the bloody poetry of revolution. Observed and recalled by Byron's biographer, Dr Polidori, and haunted by Shelley's first wife, the commune lives, loves and slips to tragedy.

AuthorHoward Brenton

Howard Brenton (b 1942)

Local Playwright, Howard Brenton was born in Portsmouth, son of Methodist minister Donald Henry Brenton and his wife Rose. He was educated at Chichester High School For Boys and St Catharine's College, Cambridge. While at Cambridge his one-act play, 'It's My Criminal', was performed at the Royal Court Theatre.

In 1968 he joined the Brighton Combination as a writer and actor, and in 1969 joined Portable Theatre (founded by David Hare and Tony Bicat), for whom he wrote 'Christie in Love' and 'Fruit'. Among his other works are 'Winter', 'Daddykins', 'Revenge', 'Wesley', 'Scott of the Antarctic' and A Sky-blue Life'. He gained some notoriety for his play 'The Romans in Britain', first staged at the National Theatre in October 1980, which drew parallels between the Roman invasion of Britain in 54BC and the British military presence in Northern Ireland. But the politics of his play were largely ignored - instead a display of moral outrage focused on a scene of attempted anal rape of a Druid priest, caught bathing by a Roman centurion .

PlayBloody Poetry

This play had its roots in Brenton's involvement with the small touring company Foco Novo and was the third, and final, show he wrote for them. The initial idea was that Brenton should write a piece based around Shelly, though Brenton was more interested in looking, not at the individual, but at the quartet of Percy, Mary Shelley, Lord Byron and Byron's mistress Claire Clairemont, tying it in with Utopian themes appropriate to the revolutionary spirit of the protagonists. In his introduction to the play Brenton disclaims any interest in moralising over the actions of his characters, as he had in a programme to his earlier play Weapons of Happiness. 'Bloody Poetry' was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre Leicester in 1984 in a production that later played at the Hampstead Theatre. The director was Roland Rees.

The Bench Production

Bloody Poetry poster image

This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.


Percy Bysshe ShelleyVincent Adams
May ShelleyDebbie Money
Claire ClairemontEve Walker
George, The Lord ByronDamon Wakelin
Dr William PolidoriPete Woodward
Harriet WestbrookSam Coombes
VoiceSam Coombes


Director Andy Rees
Stage Manager Chris Stacey
Assistant Stage Manager Mike Hickman
Lighting Design Liv Stobseth-Brown
Publicity Neil Pugmire
Handbill Pete Woodward
Costumes Simon and Sue Walton
Programme Editor Andrew Caple
Photographs John Plimmer

Director's Notes

The play as I have chosen to interpret it, portrays a man obsessed - "driven along" - by his art. Even to the extent of trying to invent his life as a form of art. But equally, a man who felt that things must change - and felt so with a violence that worked itself out on all around him. Also, however, just a man and vulnerable to the little lusts and selfishness that characterise us all.

It's not a historical play - the events are true (as far as we know), the characters existed, but this is not biography, I think obsession is a timeless theme and that is the play's main theme. It also sheds an oblique light on the creative process and the cost of the creative process and that's a rare theme for a play. But it's fascinating for us to eavesdrop on the conversations two great literary figures might have had.

The play shows Bysshe at the centre of a menage a trois, with his second wife Mary and her half-sister Claire Clairemont. They shared a sense of breaking the convention of family life and of living a life based on their love for each other, unconstrained by "the feudal savagery" of marriage. Lord Byron was recruited to the cause but was too much of a libertine to be constrained in any way at all - and certainly not just because he'd fathered a child. Byron is therefore always slightly distant from the threesome, who are, perhaps, always slightly nervous of him.

Polidori and Harriet share the stage as observers. Polidori relating to us his "literary reminiscences" and Harriet speaking from the spirit world which seemed to half-claim Bysshe, though he sought so hard to deny it - "this world is mother of all we know".

In the end life treats them with the same cruel indifference it treats us all.

So it's the bloody poetry of revolution and it's the "bloody poetry again" of putting up with a creative genius wrecking your life.

Above all it's a play full of glorious exuberant language. A play to be listened to as much as seen. It's a play full of wit not all of it subtle. I think it's tremendous and I hope you enjoy it.

Andy Rees


The NewsMike Allen

It should be heard and not seen

What would we have missed if we had heard but not seen Howard Brenton's play about Shelley, Byron and their women? The leer and flickered sneer of Dr Polidori, the biographer held in intellectual contempt by the poets. An occasional grope or caress. A licking over of logs by Shelley. Not much else. And if those were sacrificed, what would we gain? A greater concentration on the heightened language. But even as a radio play it would improve for being cut.

Director Andy Rees and his Bench Theatre team do their best. Tempi and dynamics are sensibly varied. But once Vincent Adams, moodily lit, has established Shelley's credentials as poet, once Damon Wakelin has flourished Byron's arrogant bestiality and infected Shelley with it, and once we have seen their women suffer, the main points have been made. A brave but misguided choice. Continues until next Saturday.

The News, 19th September 1997

Production Photographs