The Necessity of Atheism

The genius of the Romantic poets was their ability to bring emotion to the forefront in a world where faux-rationality reigned. They championed the sublime over the logical in poetry that still resonates today. Unfortunately, The Necessity of Atheism only aims for the head, missing the heart completely.

Unless you’re a massive Shelley fan I’m not sure there’s much to get out of this production.

Set just after Percy Shelley published his pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism, the young Oxford alumni and his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, find themselves embroiled in the political fallout. Tory and general bad guy Lord Eldon wants to see their heads on a pike, but will settle for expulsion.

The early 19th century is a fascinating time: civil liberties were being eroded, a propaganda war was being waged on the poor by the elite, and many feared censorship in a heated political climate. So, I find it utterly baffling that this production is able to sidestep drawing any meaningful parallels between our time and theirs. There is one speech about William Pitt the Younger and his proto-police state but it’s rattled through as if they want to get all that boring politics stuff out of the way.

There is no time taken to point out why we should care about Shelley, and if you lack a basic understanding of his life, you might be left in the dark. He’s portrayed in the foppish manner of Douglas Mortan in Bride of Frankenstein, too silly and shallow to anchor an entire play.

Script-wise, it’s got that boring student vibe of people in rooms just talking about ideas rather than actually saying anything of significance. Some jokes work well but there are a couple of jokes about the Oxford and Cambridge divide, and in a country of deepening inequality these jokes are misdirected and boring.

Unless you’re a massive Shelley fan, and a lot shallower than you like to make out, I’m not sure there’s much to get out of this production.

Reviews by James W. Woe

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The Blurb

Oxford, 1811 – at the height of the Napoleonic wars, amidst a fear of French invasion, a small pamphlet asking for God's existence to be proved makes its way to the heads of the university. Master Griffith dismisses it as a student joke, but Lord Eldon, Lord High Chancellor of England, smells blood. Percy Shelley thinks his pamphlet a work of brilliance but he's playing with fire, and whether he'll get burnt is in the hands of the master. This is a boisterous comedy set in the golden age of England's exuberant cartoonists.