Our choice for May was Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor. It proved a good choice and there was plenty to talk about. I found it interesting and informative, although I usually have a problem with fictionalised fact as a genre. However O’Connor does cover himself by including a selective bibliography at the end so that the reader can investigate further if s/he wants to find out more about the historical accuracy of the book’s content. O’Connor’s portrayal of Ellen Terry rings true, and so does his account of Bram Stoker, but he’s very hard on Henry Irving who had his faults but hardly deserved to be cast in the role of out-and-out villain. That said, I found the book absorbing in spite of being over-written in places.
“Shadowplay” to me was a ‘curate’s egg’, that is, very good in parts. Other parts I found quite over-written and tedious. The author shines when he writes dialogue or action pieces, but when he tries to be introspective he becomes wordy and the whole reading experience grinds to (almost) a halt. This novel suffers from being about real people, so nothing really exciting could be added to make it a better story. There was no plot line to draw me along. But I did admire the author, as a man, putting some wonderfully ascerbic opinions about men into the mouth of the actress Ellen Terry. This is a book that might please lovers of biography very much.
At first I found this book a bit confusing as it wasn’t clear who was narrating the story. However as I read on, an engaging story began to unfold of Bram Stoker’s time managing the Lyceum Theatre in London and his complicated relationships with its owner and lead actor Henry Irving and lead actress Ellen Terry. These are larger than life characters, Irving is portrayed as a bullying ‘Diva’ with a whiplash tongue and Terry is a considerate and empathetic actress loved by the public. Their bohemian lifestyle and those of the Lyceum Theatre is set amid a London that is gripped with fear as Jack the Ripper’s gruesome murders take place. This lends great atmosphere to the book. There are other fears in this late Victorian era as society is rocked by Oscar Wilde’s trial and subsequent imprisonment, this sends shock waves and panic among his peers and they burn his letters for fear of association. Thus the shadows, darknesses, hypocrisies and fears of the self and wider society are themes in this book. Lurking in the background is Dracula and there are umpteen hints and pointers throughout the story as to where Bram Stoker may have got his ideas from which I found entertaining. Stoker is a sad character in this portrayal, a ‘Clerk’ who craves recognition as an author, he has a dysfunctional marriage and there are hints about him being unsure of his sexuality in a time of harsh judgments of people considered ‘outsiders’. Shadowplay is everywhere. This is a good read as the characters are well drawn and they stay with you long after you have finished reading.