REVIEW: Mary and Claire: A Defence of Poetry

Justin Yang thinks that Wordsworth and Coleridge can eat their hearts out.

claire clairmont ellie heikel mary and claire: a defence of poetry mary shelley natalie reeve Theatre

With nothing but two chairs, a table, some candles, and an off-stage can(n)on-bearing ship, Natalie Reeve and Ellie Heikel bring to life a full cast of Romantics. 

The play starts some years after the untimely death of Percy Bysshe Shelley, when step-sisters Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Claire Mary Jane Clairmont meet after hours in the Drury Lane Theatre. Mary, prompted by biographers who have much maligned her late husband, has penned a vindication of his life while Claire wishes to perform it onstage. Mary, played by Natalie Reeve who wrote the play, is somewhat reticent while Claire, played by the energetic Ellie Heikel, is more enthusiastic.

The pair begin their story at the very beginning: with the Percy’s courtship of Mary and with Claire’s seduction of the infamous Lord Byron. The two poets are slowly drawn together by fate while Mary and Ellie follow closely. Finally, on a dark and stormy night at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva, all four convene and Mary commences her magnum opus, Frankenstein. It is fitting that Frankenstein figures so prominently in the play about births, deaths, and authorial creation — in later scenes, Mary is utterly preoccupied with writing her novel and getting it published. Mary and Claire find particular moments difficult to reenact but carry on, propelling the story forward until the deaths of Percy and Lord Byron.

Natalie Reeve as Mary Shelley and Ellie Heikel as Claire Clairmont

Heikel is a most talented actress who owns a stage as though she were born for acting. She is able to bring to life any number of characters and demonstrates the subtle nuance needed to distinguish them from one another. As Claire, Heikel masterfully conveys the transformation from giggly, naive young woman to Lord Byron’s jaded and cynical erstwhile lover. Heikel is a real gem of an actress and it was truly delightful to see her in her element.

Reeve is to be praised both as a playwright and as an actress. Mary and Claire is a deeply self-aware play, with all the appropriate inside jokes about theatrical production, which problematizes the formulation of the English canon, the role of women and their relationships with one another, and the enduring themes of birth, death, and remembrance. Reeve is able to turn on a dime, switching from the calm Mary to the eccentric enfant terrible, Lord Byron, merely by putting on a red blazer. To be sure, though dialogue in the play may be awkward at times, overall Natalie has created a truly original interpretation of the lives of Shelley and Lord Byron.

All in all, Mary and Claire succeeds in what it sets out to do: to provide a sophisticated reinterpretation of the lives of two of the most famous Romantic poets through the eyes of the women who knew them best. The play is wickedly smart and remarkably funny in its own self-awareness.