Preview: Mary Shelley

Actor Kristin Atherton tells Matthew Badham why there’s more to Mary Shelley’s life than simply being the creator of Frankenstein

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As well as being a noted figure in English literature, Mary Shelley had a tempestuous personal life. Now a new play coming to the Liverpool Playhouse as part of a national tour explores her story.

“I think she’s inspirational,” says Kristin Atherton, who plays the title role in Mary Shelley. “She didn’t wait for life to happen to her. She made all the mistakes people make, but continued to live and was never ground down by some of the extraordinary tragedies that came her way.”

These included her mother’s death when she was a baby, periods of poverty and illness, and the loss of three of her children. Her tempestuous affair with and subsequent marriage to poet Percy Shelley also caused problems, especially as he was already married when she became involved with him.

Of course, Shelley is most likely to be identified as the woman behind Frankenstein, although many will know of that story while being unaware of its author. The creator has been eclipsed by her creation. He, in turn, has seen his character distorted by numerous re-imaginings of Shelley’s novel, as Atherton notes.

“It’s a shame, because what most people think of when it comes to Frankenstein is the Boris Karloff incarnation where the monster is a bit inarticulate and stumbling. The book is very philosophical and is actually about nature versus nurture – whether monsters are born or made, and our responsibilities as human beings and parents. Victor Frankenstein creates a creature and then abandons it, and everything the creature does is fall-out from this rejection.”

Atherton is pleased to note that Mary Shelley seems to be bringing the titular author’s work to a whole new generation.

“One of the most satisfying things, especially with young audiences who see the play, is that they say they want to go and explore her work. They want to read Frankenstein and even her other books too.”

The reaction the play is getting from young people may be down to a script that the actor says is surprisingly modern despite its period setting.

“That’s the family drama angle, I think. We’ve had school groups coming in saying it feels like Eastenders.”

Shelley’s parents were William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, both of whom were radical thinkers.

“On the one hand, Mary Shelley is about these people and the revolutionary ideas they had. However, at its core, it’s really about a very unconventional family that finds itself in a state of disharmony. Their universe is exploded by the arrival of Percy Shelley.”

For Atherton, the radical strain that ran through the family gives the play acute contemporary relevance.

“Look at the Occupy movement. Mary and Percy Shelley stood for something very similar to what those particular protesters believe. They wanted a re-organisation of society away from a situation where there is this moneyed class that has everything, which co-exists alongside a far larger, disadvantaged underclass.”

This radicalism means that the characters in Mary Shelley are never afraid to speak their mind.

“If they dislike something or love someone they say so. On the other hand, they can also speak poetically.”

Plus, Atherton notes that although the production is entitled Mary Shelley, it is actually an ensemble piece.

“Each character could easily support a play of their own, because they’re so interesting. But what this play does is combine all the characters’ stories and make the audience sympathetic with every one of them.

“Sometimes, in the space of a scene, you think you know where your allegiance lies and then it changes. And, although I can’t comment on my own performance, I will say that I think the rest of the cast definitely do justice to the script. In fact, I think they’re extraordinary.”

Mary Shelley, 9-12 May, Playhouse Theatre, Liverpool

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