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Rigby's Anemic Bloody Poetry

Blood Poetry by Howard Brenton directed by Jonathan Rigby at the Leland Center through February 6

By Katherine A. Shields

Howard Brenton calls his play Bloody Poetry "the celebration of a magnificent failure." Based on the relationship between Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord George Byron, the play explores their frustrated attempt to live utopian lives. However, The Leland Center's production fails to convince the audience that their failure is worth celebrating.

Bysshe (Christopher Shea) and Byron (Jonathan Rigby) meet for the first time in the summer of 1816. Emigres to Switzerland, they seek an escape from "the turgid cesspool" of England. Still a young idealist, Bysshe is slightly in awe of the older, cynical Lord Byron, already world-weary at the age of 28. Bysshe believes he can transform the world with words. But his growing disillusionment with this possibility torments him.

Blood Poetry chronicles the effect of his poetic ambitions on those around him. He leaves his wife and children and neglects his lover, Mary Godwin (Catharine Gibson). Even when he receives the news of his first wife's suicide, the accidental rhyme "found drowned" in the letter affects him more than his loss. Byron taunts him, "You shred and tear lives around you as much as I, the cynic, the libertine." The older poet admits to his share of irresponsibility, leaving a child by Claire Clairemont (Kate Bennis) to die in a convent.

As both director and actor, Rigby robs the play of much of its natural energy. The play's biggest disappointment is his portrayal of Lord Byron. Shea's Bysshe quivers in his presence like a nervous schoolboy, but Byron as Rigby plays him doesn't seem to merit this idolatry. He appears middle-aged and harmless, although the poet was only 28 at the time. It is hard to imagine him climbing drainpipes after rich young heiresses and sleeping his way across Europe.

Byron should provide a jaded foil to Bysshe's youthful ardor; he needs to exhibit at least the shadow of his past energy so that the audience can glimpse the man who said, "What I earn my brains I spend by my bollocks." His caustic, irreverent lines carry Rigby a long way, but they can't make up for his ennervated delivery and static physical presence. Instead of dominating the stage as he should, Rigby leaves a vacuum.

Without Bryon providing a strong focal point, the central relationship between the two poets fails to engage the audience. The sexual tension between the two men suggested by the text is missing, as is a sense of development in their friendship, so that the older poet seems unaffected by Bysshe's drowning at the end. Rigby choses to deliver Byron's final lines over his friend's body in a defeated murmur instead of in the desperate shout called for by the script. Although this interpretation is consistent with his overall performance, it mutes the power of the scene.

Shea has a stronger voice and a more compelling stage presence. When he is not cowering in Byron's shadow, he delivers his monologues with feverish intensity. He is especially impressive in his final monologue, in which he recites a chaos of fragments from his poems, counting out the meter on his fingers.

Gibson has the most difficult task; the play positions Mary as a perpetual victim. At her best, Gibson achieves a bitter strenth, exposing the emptiness and self-indulgence of Bysshe's idealism. She is least successful when she allows Mary's helpless anger to deteriorate into petulent whining. Her complaints about "the endless, hopeless schemes and dreams" are rendered pathetic rather than biting.

Byron's lover Claire functions as little more a doll to be traded back and forth between the two men. Bennis gives this limited role an air of desperate gaiety, bringing a suggestion of self-awareness to Claire's naivete.

As Harriet Westbrook, Bysshe's legal wife who goes insane, Susan B. McConnel performs a convincing and disturbing monologue before drowning herself. After this scene, she is reduced to gratuitous appearances as a silent ghost. Vincent d'Errico is appropriately prissy and deluded as Dr. William Polidori, the small-minded biographer who hangs around the writers and turns up his nose at their liberated lifestyle.

But these peripheral performances don't make up for more central faults. For the play to work, the audience must be drawn to the characters' imagination and idealism so that the failure of their project is moving. Without this attraction, the rhetoric and passion seem merely self-indulgent.

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