With the issue of gender imbalance within theatre currently being a hot topic of discussion, the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s latest venture couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. The Leeds-based company is teaming up with Shared Experience and the Nottingham Playhouse to do something that many theatres are not: use the talents of women writers and directors in order to recreate the experiences of an extraordinary female novelist onstage.

Mary Shelley explores the life of one of the most prominent female authors of the nineteenth century, and is very much a female-led project – it is written by award-winning playwright Helen Edmundson and directed by Shared Experience’s Polly Teale. Did the team behind Mary Shelley make a deliberate choice to surround the project with an array of women theatremakers?

Apparently not, according to Teale: “It hasn’t ever been a conscious decision [to make Mary Shelley a female-led project], but my company Shared Experience is run by two women and we often find that women are at the centre of our stories. We are in a profession where there is still a big gender imbalance – only 17% of plays are produced by women [as outlined in research by Sphinx Theatre Company] so it’s very important that we have more stories placing women centre-stage. It’s not necessarily about creating positive female role models, but much more about exploring women’s experience in all its complexity.”

And Mary Shelley certainly led a life fraught with complexity. The daughter of free thinkers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, Shelley grew up amongst some of the most forward-thinking radicals of her time but without her mother, who died during childbirth. She eloped with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley aged 16 and wrote Frankenstein just three years later.

Teale explains what drew her to the story of Shelley and her contemporaries: “I read Frankenstein about five years ago and became fascinated by this little introduction that gave a threadbare account of Mary Shelley’s life story. I immediately thought: ‘how extraordinary’. It felt like such a rich story with so many elements that I thought it would capture people’s imaginations. All four of them – Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and Percy Shelley – are in their own right seminal figures, who altered the landscape both in terms of literature and in terms of thinking.”

It’s not just Shelley’s intriguing relationship with freethinkers and literary intellectuals that captured Teale’s attention, but the political climate in which she grew up. “It was a really fascinating time,” Teale comments. “There was a little window around the French Revolution when people were suddenly hopeful that there could be a more egalitarian society, but when it turned into a bloodbath there was an extreme government reaction; you could be thrown into prison just for expressing ideas that were deemed to be dangerous. So by the time Shelley was 16, which is when we join her in this play, there was a real backlash. I think that’s one of the things that makes the play so powerful – it looks at her radicalism, her beliefs, and her desire to live according to these ideals within the context of what was actually possible given the reality of an imperfect world and the fallibility of people.” So are Shelley’s ideals and beliefs still relevant within contemporary society?

“There are a lot of parallels with today’s world,” Teale believes. “Shelley’s beliefs are incredibly pertinent when so much of our civilised society is about how much money we have. [The radicals of Shelley’s era] were so anti-materialistic, and here we are at the crossroads with a kind of meltdown of the whole capitalist system.”

Teale in particular can relate to the “meltdown” of the current political situation. Her company, Shared Experience, has recently lost its funding from Arts Council England, and must now source all its money via individual applications or time-consuming fundraising. Teale says that although she and Co-Artistic Director Nancy Meckler “are doing everything we can to continue with the company” having to raise their own funding is “hugely challenging”, which comes as a blow not only to fans of the company’s work but to those searching for female-led companies within the mass of male-dominated work. Did Godwin and his radical counterparts offer an alternative to this money-driven approach to life?

“They believed that through education and understanding you could develop people’s innate sense of responsibility, so they would live in a more consensual, communal way,” Teale states. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is very much about that – the idea that if you treat something brutally it will become brutal and that monsters aren’t born but created by the conditions that surround them.”

Yet despite the obvious Godwinian influence in Frankenstein’s message of ‘treat others as you wish to be treated’, it seems that even the prominent radical Godwin couldn’t always stick to his liberal ideals. Teale provides a literary insight into Shelley’s most famous writing, stating: “Godwin put all his belief in equality and the importance of respecting the individual, but when Mary ran away with Percy he completely cut her off. I think she wrote Frankenstein as a way of trying to win back his love and approval. On the surface the novel is spouting Godwin’s theories, but at a deeper level it’s expressing Mary’s terrible anguish that a creature has been created and then cast out and abandoned.”

It seems the team behind Mary Shelley have a lot to pack into a couple of hours – from her radical upbringing to her turbulent relationship with Percy Shelley and the incredible achievement of writing Frankenstein aged just 19, Mary Shelley’s life was anything but straightforward. Luckily, the West Yorkshire Playhouse seem up for the task, promising that their adaptation will “shed light on the life of a bold young woman who came to write a novel so radical in its ideology, she changed the literary landscape forever.” With the future of female-led Shared Experience hanging in the balance and women struggling to be recognised in a professional theatrical context, Mary Shelley is hitting the cultural zeitgeist on the head.

Mary Shelley will run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 16 March to 17 April 2012, before transferring to the Nottingham Playhouse and embarking on a national tour. For more information, see their website.

Image 1: Mary Shelley by Shared Experience

Image 2: Polly Teale by Robert Day