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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.