Coffee and cake with Mary Shelley (An interview with Kristin Atherton)
For a woman who achieved so much during her lifetime; it seems almost sacrilegious that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is usually referred to only as she relates to other people.
- Her mother; one of the pioneers of the feminist movement.
- Her father; a distinguished political philosopher and author.
- Her husband; well he happened to be one of this country’s most lauded romantic poets and finest ever lyricists.
It seems fitting that it falls to three talented, determined and creative women to re-introduce Mary Shelley to a modern audience.
The playwright Helen Edmundson (Swallows and Amazons, Anna Karenina and The Mill on the Floss), Director Polly Teale (Artistic Director of the Shared Experience theatre company, author of Bronte and Fallen) and actress Kristin Atherton (Charlotte Bronte in Bronte) are working as part of theater group Shared Experience to bring Mary Shelley to life this life at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
And I have been fortunate enough to steal a coffee with Kristin and find out a little bit more about this production. However, as I work very close to the Playhouse, I can’t help but see her ‘in character’. It’s not many book clubs that are fortunate enough to have a chat with a literary hero like Mary Shelley!
Unassuming and friendly with a throaty and infectious laugh; it becomes obvious when watching her discuss the play and preparations that Kristin’s steely intensity comes to the fore – so necessary when portraying a historical character such as this. Kristin is focused and vibrant, seeming to be as enthralled by Mary Shelley the woman, as readers around the world are for her creations.
A recent graduate of LAMDA; this is Sheffield born Kristin’s second Shared Experience production – last year she portrayed Charlotte Bronte – the eldest sister and near-maternal figure in Bronte to critical acclaim. She considers herself very fortunate to have been able to prepare so thoroughly for this role.
On the production…
“I actually won the role a year ago, while working on Bronte – so I’ve been able to immerse myself in the period, to try and discover more about this writer and her family and motivations. It’s almost unheard of to have five full weeks of rehearsals, let alone a year to prepare, so I consider myself very lucky. Though it is an additional pressure to make sure that we get it right.
This production focuses very much on a specific period of time, a relatively short period – 2 years – Mary from 16 years of age to 19, but one that was hugely important in Mary’s development. I mean on the one hand, this is a love story – and there is something very sweet in Percy’s wooing of Mary, impressing her with boastful tales of his pamphlets, but on the other it’s about a young woman going through a very tumultuous phase in her life, one that will ultimately define her.”
“Helen has done an extraordinary thing, which I really love – which they did in Nowhere Boy (John Lennon biopic), where they never ever mention the name the Beatles, and the second that you think they will; they don’t – and Helen has done the same thing with Frankenstein here. It’s always being hinted at – what Mary is writing – a lot of the themes and images and the wonderful classic moments from the book sort of bleed in but at no point does it ever become overt – at no point does she say the name. The closest it gets is the very final scene where it’s actually used more as a metaphor for her relationship with her father. I think this is [the heart of] Helen’s take on the book
Frankenstein is a very easy book to misinterpret. Mary was a very subtle author and there are a lot of people who miss that this is more than a horror story. Due to Boris Karloff, a lot of people think that the monster is stupid, or slow, but actually he taught himself to read, it is an articulate creature. And the books that he reads are so significant. I mean the monster identifies so much with Paradise Lost [by John Milton] but the character of the devil. Helen pulls out the fact that Mary uses this book to reject her father’s philosophy. And her husband’s actually.”
“You could research for hours on this woman’s life. We only have 2 or fingers crossed 2 and a half hours to look at this woman – these two years of isolation. She was so molded by her father, her isolation from him had a huge impact on her psyche. She thought that Percy was the fulfillment of a great deal of her fathers philosophical ideals.
I think this is a great shock for her. Being cut off from her family really wounds her. I think this really echoes within her most famous book. She was completed underestimated from the moment that her father died, though not so much in her own time. She very much becomes hers mothers daughter – not merely because she is raised to be, but because of the way she lives those philosophies. And Helen works all these facets into the play.”
On her father and mother…
“Mary’s relationship with her father is so very significant here – Helen has really drawn upon this and her relationship with her stepmother. Her poor relationship with her stepmother was probably a result of her affection for her father. Goodwin tries to create a sort of mini-Mary Woolstonecroft, and as soon as she becomes that woman [and falls in love with Percy] he rejects her. And this devastates her. She becomes monstrous to him.
In describing the story that she is writing [Frankenstein], Mary Shelley is identifying what her father has done to her. At one point she actually tells him ‘I don’t believe in the infallibility of man…I think your philosophy is dangerous.I believe we have to own our deficiencies’. She is no longer a pupil, they are not father and daughter, they are equals. This book was structured to show him what he had done to her, to show him what he had to acknowledge before they could ever go back to the relationship that they had before. If indeed they ever could. I suspect that they could ever go back to the relationship they’d had before.”
On her sisters…
“Fanny [Mary’s sister is a huge part of this play. She was so in love with Percy – you just feel for her. And she just doesn’t have the confidence. Her relationship with Mary forms a huge crux of the play. Mary tries – in our version – to draw her in, explaining that Fanny would be so much more free or liberated if she read Mary Wollstoncraft, if she embraced their mothers ideals but Fanny isn’t like that, she doesn’t want to be that person.
Instead Mary finds a shared spirit…or what she *thinks* is a shared spirit in her sister Jane (often referred to as Claire).”
On Shared Experience…
“We actually just ran act 1 and 2 for the first time. I mean given the scope of her life, I can’t really draw on my own experiences. We just finished and we’re all gasping and exhausted, dragging ourselves off the floor. Every SE show is like running a marathon. It’s a very physical process. It’s quite abstract!”
On the Brontes…
“Though there are only a mere 20 years between Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte, they could not be more different characters – indeed the social worlds that they inhabited were utterly disparate. But where Charlotte was the daughter of a clergyman and Mary…well her mother was a very different sort of woman. I think that a modern audience has this view of Mary Wollstonecaft as being a rebel…totally controversial, but in her time, she was controversial but not half so much until Goodwin’s memoirs.
The literary fans in the audience will hopefully recognise little nods throughout the production – from references to Percy Shelley’s pamphlets to mentions to her family.”
On other interests…
“I do write, Helen is always so supportive, always asking
It would always be fiction. My thoughts are not nearly organised enough to write anything like this.”
(Shared Experience on Youtube – the closest thing to a trailer I could find!)