Shadowplay by Joseph O'Connor
I love historical fiction, and this absolute gem of a book did not disappoint. Shadowplay is a fictional reimagining of the real-life relationship between Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker (author of Dracula) and the two greatest stars of Victorian theatre, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. I knew little about the life of Bram Stoker before reading this novel, so it was fascinating to learn more about him. Of course Dracula became a sensation after he had passed away, so he never received recognition for his talents, and you can sense his frustration in this story.
As a civil servant in Dublin and already harbouring a strong desire to become a writer, Stoker writes a positive review of actor Henry Irving's Hamlet that he performed there. Irving impulsively hires him to run his Lyceum Theatre (which of course still exists today). Stoker and his new wife Florence are excited by their new life in London, but when he discovers the wretched state of the theatre and experiences the first lash of Irving's notorious temper, the young writer begins to question his decision. After a huge amount of hard work, largely on the part of Stoker, the Lyceum starts to make a profit and the two men become more at ease in one another's company. They are soon joined by the beguiling Ellen Terry, the finest actress of her generation. Both men fall in love with her but this is very subtly and delicately handled. Inspired by the people he meets at the theatre, Stoker conjures up a charismatic Count from Transylvania and sets about writing the story that will ensure his name would never be forgotten.
The setting of the novel really brings this story to life. London of the 1880s is beautifully described by Joseph O'Conner in all its grit and glamour; it brims with atmosphere and menace and pure Victorian gothic drama. I loved the colourful descriptions of the theatrical performances and all the backstage goings on. There is a marvellous episode where Oscar Wilde attends a performance and provokes a very raucous aftershow party. The author also introduces some supernatural elements and it’s all set against the backdrop of a London stalked by Jack the Ripper.
It’s not essential to be a theatre lover to become immersed in this hugely entertaining and compelling book about the grand scope of friendship, love, ambition, heartache and drama.
Book Review by Beverly Lister