Kristin Atherton is currently taking on the title role in Shared Experience’s new production of Mary Shelley she was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions about playing historical figures, touring and what we can expect from the play.
This is your second time playing a leading female literary figure why do you think your cast in these parts?
Luck? Simple answer obviously, but it’s pretty much true. I think it’s more to do with being cast by Shared Experience in the first place – they’re very loyal to their actors, and once you’ve been immersed in a Shared Experience rehearsal process it’s such an easy thing to slip back into it, so they tend to ask you back for other projects. They’re a company with an incredible emphasis on strong women and the struggles they go through. The lives of many female authors often seem to highlight and hone in on these particular struggles – the right to compete in a man’s arena (in the case of Charlotte Bronte) or the right to live out a life with as much freedom as a man (in the case of Mary Shelley), and so Shared Experience tend to focus on telling these stories. I’m tempted to say that I also have the look and manner of someone who really doesn’t go out much and has nothing better to do then wade through a long reading list, so maybe that helps…
Is it hard to base a character on a real life figure?
In some ways it’s (if not necessarily easy, then) easier as there’s such an amazing wealth of material to research and help make the character real. Not only are there dozens of biographies on them, their families, their legacies, but there are letters, diaries, novels and a whole host of other documents where you get the opportunity to ‘hear’ their actual voice. Every bit of research, however random or seemingly inconsequential, somehow makes them even richer and more three dimensional by the time you get round to investigating the script, whereas normally an actor has just a script to sift through and then a lot of inventing to do. On the other hand, what then makes it hard is the responsibility of portraying a real person; because there is so much information about them, it becomes even more important not to simplify or dismiss their contradictions, flaws and achievements – to do them ‘justice’. Especially with famous authors, I can only guess how many people have come to love and worship them, and these same people will possibly already have a very concrete idea of who they are. But ultimately I’m not playing anyone’s ‘Mary’ but the one Helen (Edmundson) has written, and her words are the thing to hold on to when there’s so much other information competing in your head.
What sort of research did you do for the role?
I read three Mary Shelley biogs (you wouldn’t believe how many different takes there could be on one person – in each book Mary seemed alternately shy and quietly calming, feisty and hot-tempered, entirely selfish, naively selfless, it changed so much from author to author) and Lyndall Gordons amazing biography of Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s famous feminist mother). I also read up a lot on the role of women at that period in history, the lifestyles of the ‘middle class’ family in the early 1800s, and of course re-read Frankenstein! The characters in the play are absolutely prodigious readers so it was wonderful to get in to that head space for a little while (normally I wouldn’t read nearly as much), and several books are mentioned in the play which it was important to read to know specifically what we were talking about (e.g William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of The Rights of Woman and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters From Sweden). The shadow of debt and the debtors prison is also incredibly important in the play, so I visited theMuseum ofLondon at one point, to see the reconstructed debtors prison cell – complete with 1800s graffiti!
Wow. Lots! What can you tell us about the play itself?
Being a Shared Experience show, it’s a highly physical and emotionally complex play about the two crucial years in Mary Shelley’s life that lead up to her writing her masterpiece Frankenstein.
The relationships within the play, and the complexity of those relationships are almost impossible to sum up, but I like to think of the play as a pair of love stories; the first is the most obvious between Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, the married poet she elopes with at the age of sixteen, and the other, more complex, is between Mary and her father, the infamous radical William Godwin. Mary in later life described her attachment to her father as “excessively romantic”, and her worship of him is almost like that of a lover. They were exceptionally close whilst she was growing up and she tried constantly to become everything he could possibly want her to be, whilst pitting herself against her ‘wicked stepmother’, the indomitable Mrs Godwin (his second wife, whom he married two years after Wollstonecrafts death). After Mary eloped with Shelley, Godwin cut her off, refusing all contact, and it is this act of rejection that the play focuses in on. Mary’s feelings of confusion, bitterness, and anger towards her father over the following two years is (as far as Helen sees it) ultimately what she channelled in to her writing of Frankenstein. The play becomes about everything Mary goes through to be with the man she loves, and even more crucially to become her own person away from the expectations of her father. Without spoiling too many plots details she goes to absolute hell and back, and comes out the other side, a little scarred but determined to live life on her own terms.
Helen Edmundson has a couple of big plays out at the moment was she involved in the rehearsal process at all?
Helen was fantastic throughout rehearsals! She has the most wonderfully calming presence, and you can feel from the script just how much research, passion and commitment she had poured into this play. Unfortunately because of her other two shows she wasn’t able to be around as often as she would have wanted early on, but towards the end she was in nearly every rehearsal – making rewrites, cuts, summing up in a few sentences the solution to problems we’d been wracking our brains over for weeks. She had very clear ideas of what she wanted from our characters, and both she and Polly Teale (the director) were a very strong team when it came to moving us all in the right direction.
You’re travelling all around the country with the production are their any venues you’re particularly looking forward to?
Going back to Oxford is going to be wonderful. Shared Experience are the resident company there, so we’ll have a strong fan base coming to see the show, and as Shelley was a famous Oxford scholar (even though he was expelled!) I’m guessing we’ll get a fare few scholarly Shelley buffs coming along. And it has to be said, I’m looking forward to Liverpool if for no other reason than my entire family (my dad’s Liverpudlian) are coming along to see the show!
If you could perform any part at any theatre what would it be and where?
That’s a hard question. I’m greedy so it’s a hard one to pin down. Abigail in The Crucible, Mertueil in Les Liasons Dangereous, basically women who are a little hard to like I guess! But I’ve always had a complete fascination with Queen Margaret from Shakespeare’s War of the Roses cycle, she goes through such an intense, soul destroying journey – from blushing bride to near-insane prophetess – through those four plays. And which theatre? I was lucky enough to play on the Olivier at the NT once as part of Harold Pinter’s Memorial, so to act there again would be a complete dream. So yes, Queen M on the Olivier please! I can dream …
What’s the best thing you’ve seen on stage?
It’s still got to be Michael Grandage’s production of Edward II at the Crucible Theatre. I was only 15 years old and I must have seen it at least three times! Everything about it; impassioned performances, simple stylish set, razor sharp direction, was perfect. I was so gripped, and it was around that time that I knew I wanted to do what I saw those people on stage doing. And the Crucible is one of this country’s best and most special stages, so that made it even better.
We would like to say a massive thank you to Kristin for taking the time to answer our questions and wish her and the production all the very best on the road, she is a wonderful actor with an exciting future ahead of her and we urge you to go along to see her in Shared Experience’s Mary Shelley. For more information about the show please click here.