Year Without Summer @ Sweet Grassmarket

Vivid, intricate, yet unfocused play about a group of infamous exiled writers

Review by Grace Lavender | 31 Aug 2018
  • Year Without Summer

It’s 1816. A year without summer. The poor weather has trapped a group of writers in a villa together, all of them exiled from England for different reasons. Directed and written by Andrew Allen, Year Without Summer captures the suffocating intensity of a summerless few days, exploring the dependent and interconnected lives of these artists.

Lord Byron (Edward Corbett) is part way through writing Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Mary Godwin, later Shelley (Rhiannon Williams), is just starting to conceive what will become Frankenstein. The pair sit with Mary’s half-sister and Byron’s lover, Claire Clairmont. Although these are the only characters onstage, we learn that Percy Shelley is also in the villa, along with John Polidori, author of The Vampyre. All believers in ‘free love’, we are witness to the complex, intense and sometimes damaging, emotional and literary process that the characters are wrapped up in. None of the characters seem able to exist without the others; this is a tale of dependence in creation.

Allen’s script is, for the most part, a triumph. It is full of beautiful phrases and metaphors, although sometimes tips too far into the hyperbolic, becoming unrealistic. Corbett and Williams are especially compelling in their roles, and the intensity of the performance is maintained by the whole cast throughout.

Sometimes Year Without Summer seems to lose focus. In parts the play stagnates, not for lack of intensity but an abundance of it. As Byron himself states in the play, a life of passion is as impossible as a ‘continuous earthquake’, and yet it feels as though this is what the play is attempting to achieve. Overall, however, it is an intricate and vivid glance into the world of these 19th century literary giants.

Year Without Summer, Sweet Grassmarket, until 26 Aug, £8-6

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