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Friday, 22 April 2016

Dressed to Kill

A piece of excellent news this year is that Emma Rice has been appointed artistic director of the Globe Theatre in London. It will be exciting to see how the work of the traditional home of Shakespeare's plays develops with her direction. In an early interview, she indicated that she would be casting female actors in some of the major male roles. The idea is not entirely new - there have been female Hamlets from Sarah Bernhard to Maxine Peake - but no doubt Rice will expand the repertoire.

It's no surprise that men got the biggest share of the lines in Shakespeare's day. It was a male dominated society, and outside the comedies, the women don't get much chance to drive the action forward. There are exceptions of course, for example Lady Macbeth. By a happy accident, I was thinking of this when I came across a reproduction of John Singer Sargent's portrait of Ellen Terry in the magnificent beetle wing gown she wore in the role.

In 2011, after five years and more than 700 hours of meticulous restoration work, it went on display again at Terry's last home, the National Trust property Smallhythe Place in Kent. After a tempestuous life, it deserved some tender loving care . Terry had a reputation for arriving late and dressing in a hurry, thereby damaging the delicate wings. It also showed the marks of snagging from the spectacular jewellery she wore on stage; being trampled on by other actors and snagging on scenery. The production ran for more than six months to packed houses, and the costume was reused on many later tours, crossing the Atlantic at least twice.

In the painting, the sea green fabric shimmers with the iridescent wings of 1,000 beetles. The replacements for  the damaged ones were donated by an antique dealer in Tenterden. (Fear not, these jewelled beetles shed their wings naturally.)

The gown caused a sensation when Terry wore it as Lady Macbeth in 1888, transforming the beautiful flame-haired actor into a cross between a jewelled serpent and a medieval knight. After the first night, Oscar Wilde, recalled the impact of Lady Macbeth arriving in a taxi: "The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets."

Another smitten male visitor to Terry's dressing room recorded: "There before me was Lady Macbeth in the glorious robe of green beetle wings. Her face was wreathed in smiles, and almost the first words she said were 'Is not this a lovely robe? It is so easy, and one does not have to wear corsets.'"

How practical.


Monday, 4 April 2016

Brother and Sister

Anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with English poetry is likely to be able to recite a few lines of William Wordsworth's famous poem,  I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. The entry in his sister, Dorothy's, Lakeland Journal for 15th April 1802, the day that they saw the daffodils together, is less well known, although William himself gave her credit for being an inspiration to him when he said of her in old age that "She gave me eyes; she gave me ears."

As it's daffodil time, I've just re-read what Dorothy wrote. It's so evocative, I'd like to share it with you:

"When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park, we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more, and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful. They grew among the mossy stones and about them; some resting their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever changing . This wind blew directly over the lake to them. there was here and there a little knot, and a few stragglers a few yards higher up; but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity, unity, and life of that one busy highway."