Anyone who is remotely interested in Feminism must know the enormous debt it owes to Mary Wollstonecroft. Initially famous within literary circles as the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, following her death her professional reputation was eclipsed by the revelations of her private life. Theatre Mensch's ambitious play Mary, Mary focuses not only on Wollstonecroft, but her second daughter who is a notable literary figure in her own right – Mary Shelley (née Godwin).
Wollstonecraft died when Mary was a few days old, but both women had famous literary figures within their respective circle of friends, with some overlapping between the two. The play moves back and forth between mother and daughter as they forge their respective identities. In the case of Mary (the younger, Francesca Burgoyne) she is forever 'haunted' by her mother – not only in terms of living up to her status as a pioneer of women's rights, but also as daughter of a woman whose unorthodox love life obfuscated her pioneering thoughts on the equality of women.
The play begins in 1816, "the year without summer" with Mary Shelley taking up Lord Byron's challenge to write the most frightening piece of horror fiction imaginable. Shelley finds inspiration from the 'logical' deduction that everything has a progenitor and that whether it is the Creator versus the created, or parent versus child, there is a long tradition of dramatic conflict between the two. Then there are the parallels of Shelley and the Creature having no mother...
While Shelley was in real life no stranger to controversy, we see from the play where she inherited her fearless disposition with regards to relationships, as much of the play focuses on Wollstonecroft's relationships and the ramifications of following her convictions.
Mary, Mary is a gender-blind production, so all the roles are played by Ashleigh Loeb, Katy Helps and Francesca Burgoyne. This made for some interesting dynamics, especially with the male characters played by Helps who conveyed their 'nature' without resorting to superficial aids like the deepening of the voice etc.
Mary, Mary is an ambitious play that fits A LOT into its hour duration. There have been other plays that have tackled the life of Shelley, but none to my knowledge that show on close inspection such close parallels between daughter and mother. Playing devil's advocate, while people like myself know more than the laymen about Wollstonecroft's complex life, I'm not so certain that the distinctions between the many characters in the play were obvious on the stage for those unfamiliar with the Romantic Poets social circle. Perhaps a longer length play would allow the extended circles be explored in more detail so the uninitiated would have a better grasp of how important these people really were – both to Wollstonecroft and Shelley, and in the wider historical arena.
Incidently Abi Morgan's The Mistress Contract owes an enormous debt to Wollstonecroft, as the play's central figure adheres to her values in a private, 'social' experiment that's seen through to the end.
© Michael Davis 2016
Mary, Mary ran at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre, London on 20th and 21st August 2016.