In good company – journeying with Shelley & Catchpole

I spend the train journey from Leeds to London in the forthright company of 2 amazing women – Mary Shelley and Margaret Catchpole.  As you can imagine (as both are now long dead) it was quite some journey – but in playwrights Helen Edmundson and Alastair Cording I had two well versed guides.

I’d been to see Edmundson’s Mary Shelley for Shared Experience at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on Saturday.  Its play text programme had allowed me the privilege to relive the experience.  It’s a thrilling, brooding  and suitably gothic affair where acts of hypocrisy, passionate love, and death flow like the tea from Mrs Godwin’s pot.  Indeed,  like me,  the radical philospopher William Godwin  seems to believe that the solution to all ills is not enquiries regarding political justice but a good old cup of char.  Beneath it all rumbles the shadowy question – where did Frankenstein come from… Edmundson provides at least four potential answers.

Margaret Catchpole was on the other hand the legendary Suffolk girl who  rode on a stolen horse, disguised as a boy from Ipswich to London in a last ditch attempt to be with her smuggler of a man.     It’s Eastern Angles thirtieth anniversary show and will be staged at the atmospeheric Hush House at Bentwaters Parks’, a former 2ndWW airfield.  Maragret may not have penned a gothic masterpiece but with that ride of her life she galloped into legend! (ok – yes – that’s a blatent use of our tag line!)

[not related to Eastern Angles production – Anglia Tonights coverage of Orwell School’s celebration of Margaret Catchpole – including a summary of the story..amateur video]

I can’t help but be struck by the similarities between the two pieces.  Both plays focus on a strong, free thinking woman who (seemingly) think nothing of going against the conventions of the day.  Both fall for men whom society would deem deeply unsuitable.  Both find themselves at the heart of unconventional love triangles.  Both are desperately  in search of freedom on their own terms.  Percy Byshee Shelley wrote ‘the essence of love is freedom’ – ironically it may have been a statement that Margaret agreed with more than Mary.

In Alastair Cording’s script we see Elizabeth Cobbold teaching the illiterate Margaret Catchpole to read.  It seems perfectly feasible that Elizabeth would have read – or known of – Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mother)A Vindication of the Rights of Women (published two years earlier) which argued the twin virtues of freedom of thought and devotion to family, a reaction to a society that subordinated women to men.

The two stories are set during one of the most turbulent times of British history – Mary Shelley in the concentrated time of 1816-1818 and the Catchpole story spanning 1784-1799.  War and revolution were raging throughout Europe  whilst new ideas were battling with the increasingly repressive activity of national government.  In Mary Shelley in particular the characters increasingly find themselves battling with the ideals of the enlightenment and the realities of trying to live.  Compromise and hypocrisy , radicalism and conservatism become interchangeable. The world of Catchpole is grittier – with no hope of promissory notes based on a grandfathers’ estate.  The choice is bleaker – a life of poverty or the smugglers’ lot.  Catchpole tries to make the most of the opportunities provided by her patron (the Doctor) but each time is foiled by the love for her man.

The similarities don’t end there.  Both the Godwin (Mary’s father) and Catchpole families suffer hardship  because of other people perceptions (Godwins failing business, Fanny’s sacking as a governess, Father Catchpole’s sacking because of Margaret’s associations with a smuggler).  Critically for the drama of the pieces central to both heroines stories is an anti hero – a kind of Heathcliffe figure.  Percy Byshee Shelley a daring, young and exuberant poet.  Driven by a desire to live by the minute, to find a new universal truth, to build communities he is shamelessly unaware of the havoc which he leaves behind. Margaret Catchpole’s lover Will Laud is a bold, handsome  sailor cum smuggler . Forever on the run he is never able to stay long enough on these shores to consummate his relationship with Maragaret.  Caught in an increasingly vicious downward spiral  (and under the influence of his friend John Luff) he resorts to drink and violence as he flees his love rival the unfortunate John Barry ( a Kings Revenue Man) who is in reluctant pursuit (echoing  that Javert/Valjean relationship in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables)

Both tales require fluid and imaginative storytelling from the creative teams.  Scenes and locations flow in and out of one another.  Mary Shelley conjurs up nightmares and a recurring image of her mothers attempted suicides whilst the story requires carriage rides, rough channel crossings.  In Catchpole we see the horse rides, the attacks on smugglers, Harvest celebrations and jail breaks.   It’s rich dramatic source material. In Polly Teale’s hands Shelley is a haunting, sometimes shadowy always utterly engrossing evening.  Equally as exciting will be seeing how director Ivan Cutting and his team tackles the challenges within Margaret Catchpole.

[a video about Eastern Angles previous show at the Hush House – Bentwaters Road]

Margaret and Mary left me at Kings Cross finishing each others sentence.  ‘We cannot let our lives be small.  There is no life but loving’.  One thing is for sure – drama as good as this is anything but small!

[a music video (Sellador’s We Are Small) which was recorded at the Hush House]


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