Unconventional maverick or uncaring monster?
Before Byron, Mary or Frankenstein came into it, the life of Percy Bysshe Shelley was already the stuff of scandal. Bullied at Eton and nicknamed Mad Shelley, Horsham-born Shelley grew up to be an avowed atheist, an anti-establishment political radical and early pioneer of vegetarianism and free love.
During his lifetime his writing was largely overshadowed by his notorious lifestyle but today he is regarded as one of England’s finest poets, alongside his contemporaries Lord Byron and John Keats.
Horsham-based Lights & Bushels Theatre Company promise to shine a light on the less well known but no less fascinating aspects of Shelley’s life in Mad Shelley, a play by Kathryn Attwood. It will be staged on September 5, 6 and 7 in The Capitol Studio, Horsham. Tickets £12 on www.thecapitolhorsham.com or 01403 750220.
“Shelley was a very interesting character and we have taken some of the lesser known aspects of his life,” Kathryn explains. “A lot of people know how he married Mary Shelley, the stories about Mary and Byron and Lake Geneva and so on… all that has been done to death.
“But not so many people know about his earlier adult life and his marriage to a poor girl called Harriet Westbrook. It is a bit of a sad story. Shelley married her when she was about 17, and they had two children, but he abandoned her when he met Mary. Harriet never got over the abandonment. Shelley wrote to her repeatedly asking her to come and live with him and Mary as a sister. He was a bit of an early exponent of free love, and he thought it was perfectly acceptable to ask her to come and live with him and his wife as a sister. He couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to do this. Eventually she drowned herself when she was only about 20…”
As Kathryn says, Shelley was a character of contradictions: “And the play very much leaves it up to the audience to make up their own minds about him. You could say that his behaviour towards Harriet was appalling, but at the same time he was very much into social equality and trying to help the poor. He abhorred the idea of landed gentry which is what he was born into. So you could say that in his public life he was very principled. As for his private life, I leave it up to the audience to decide...”
As Kathryn explains: “Lights & Bushels is based in Horsham and we formed for our first production in 2015 which was an adaptation of Lady Susan by Jane Austen which was one of her lesser-known works. Our USP is that we write our own scripts so that everything we do is a premiere. So far is has been Barry Syder and myself. We are the co-founders. The subject matter has tended to be more period, sometimes adaptations of novels. I have done two Jane Austen adaptations and Barry has done a Dickens. But we also do original works such as Mad Shelley.”
Kathryn wrote the piece with Horsham’s Year of Culture in mind: “I wrote the bulk of it last year and we started rehearsing in May. It is a one-off for the Capitol at the moment. It would be nice to tour if we could find a suitable venue.”