[Radio] BBC Oxford paper review

Sometimes, I go on the radio! Today, I was on Will Gompertz’s show on BBC Oxford. Will himself was off covering the Oliviers, so Sybil Ruscoe covered. I had a great time – Sybil was the presenter for my very first BBC Oxford appearance (well, not really an appearance) last year, and the other guest was the very lovely Adam Jennings of Red Box New Media. Adam and I were on for the first hour, talking about Britishness, GP reform, the Royals (I think at one point we inadvertently announced Kate’s second pregnancy – she isn’t, and I described George as “pleasingly fat”) and 24-hour restaurants, and you can catch up with the show on BBC iPlayer. Later in the programme you can hear Nic Bennett, whose music Sybil describes as “anxiety folk”….

Rehearsal notes: thoughts on The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith

Today, I was back with the cast and crew for Primavera’s production of The Notorious Mrs. Ebbsmith, Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1895 play about the relationship between a radical female demagogue, and the young MP who abandons his wife and career for her. Living as political comrades and lovers in Venice, Agnes Ebbsmith and Lucas Cleeve are visited by his rakehell uncle, the Duke of St Olpherts, who plays the very longest of games in attempting to neutralise Agnes’s influence over her lover, and return Lucas to his wife.

Writing that summary caused me great pain, because re-reading the text and working with the company has reminded me what an ambiguous, complicated and wonderful play it is. It’s also one that I find incredibly sad (which is somewhat unfair, given that I laughed out loud frequently during the run I watched). As well as the standard historical advice bit (pockets! Wedding rings! What is Dr Kirke doing in Venice?), I also gave notes to a cast for the first time in years, which was a daunting but enjoyable– and also one that reminded me how illegible my note-taking is, during a run. I should say that I only gave notes at the behest of Abbey Wright, the marvellous director who has cast the production incredibly cleverly (full disclaimer: she’s an Orielensis and from Warwickshire, although I didn’t know either of these facts when I took the job. Disclaimer son of disclaimer: also just discovered she directed the 2012 run of Bitch Boxer, which I saw in 2013). In particular, her casting resists the temptation (and I think thereby doing a rather better job than Pinero’s original text might have done) to turn the supporting female roles – Gertrude, a young widow from Yorkshire, and Sybil, the MP’s aristocratic wife – into mere foils. Julia Goulding and Sarah Madigan are as strong and arresting as the eponymous lead.

Primavera’s production is the first since 1895, which is remarkable given that The Second Mrs. Tanqueray (his 1893 work, to which this was the career sequel) is done fairly regularly – and that this, in all its ambiguity and obsessive negotiation of gender and class, is actually a great play for today.

The Duke of St Olpherts reminds me of those better known fin-de-siècle flaneurs, Lord Henry Wootton, Lord Darlington and Lord Goring. He’s actually more dangerous and more interesting than all three. Although patently attracted to Agnes (and not pace Gladstone, “in the missionary spirit) and a lifelong rakehell, he doesn’t have an emotional crisis and offer her his hand (Darlington), or preach aesthetic philosophy (Wootton), or offer witty salvation to the hero, as Goring does to Lord Chiltern, Wilde’s version of the compromised “coming man”. Thackeray called Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” and this is a play without a hero – Lucas Cleeve isn’t Robert Chiltern. But although Olpherts isn’t Wootton, he is Wildean. Responding to Agnes’s frankly splendid account of his outrageous and enterprising past, St Olpherts declares “I detected the tendency of the age”. This reminded me of what Wilde wrote in his prison his prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas (which, although subsequently titled De Profundis, George Bernard Shaw saw as Wilde in excelsis). Comparing himself to Lord Byron (actually a far better role model for St Olpherts than Wilde), Wilde wrote ‘I was a man who stood in symbolic relation to […] my age”. St Olpherts stands in symbolic relation to Agnes, to Lucas, and to all of monied, dissolute fin-de-siècle society. Agnes calls him a torturer; at times he seems like a natural Pandarus forced into precisely the opposite role. There are also moments when he’s the most shocking character in the play.

He’s also, physically, the sickest person in a play that’s overwhelmingly about sickness – what it means to be healthy, unnatural, or mad. Anyone interested in health, class, or gender should see this play. Between 1898 and 1918, the trades union movements grew especially fast, and the political rhetoric Pinero gives the working-class Agnes anticipates much of the language of the suffrage and socialist movements. But back to sickness. In a tiny cast of characters, there are two doctors, and two nurses: Agnes is professional, and Gertrude has helped with nursing Lucas because of her devotion to her (Amos, it seems, may have made a third nurse). Lucas has been recently violently unwell, although it’s unclear whether his troubles are more mental or physical. Gertrude has terrible bouts of depression and has experienced the deaths of husband, lover, and child. Agnes faints and is attended by Kirke in the course of the play; we subsequently see her with a burned and bandaged hand. “Mad Agnes” also discusses the extent of the misery and privation she’s suffered in the past – until her “bones were through [her] skin”. The original, in fact the only other Mrs Ebbsmith was Mrs Patrick Campbell, who in 1895 was considered horribly thin. Sadly, today her physique is the default and pinnacle for film acting, although theatre remains (mercifully) more diverse.  It’s also a play in which characters desperately try to alleviate each other’s suffering, with Amos and Gertrude ultimately presenting spiritual healing as Agnes’s only possibility of an effective “cure”.

I’m so glad I was able to be involved with Primavera, and I can’t wait to see the full show: today’s run was a joy. It was also my first visit to the Jerwood Space, via Jubilee line chaos, an emergency cab dash, and a fascinating chat to the driver about The Knowledge (3 years! full time! 400 routes to memorise). These are rambling notes, but I’m trying to make the blog more active and not let the perfect (eloquent) be the enemy of the good (published).

Finally, I hope my UK readers aren’t suffering too badly from the smog. My eyes are itching horribly and London today was so polluted that, in comparison, the half-a-dozen trees beside the Tate as I walked up to Blackfriars smelled like a verdant meadow. And then my journey back to Oxford took 90 minutes longer than expected, thanks to a diversion. I feel I could now win Mastermind with my specialist subject as the backstreets of West Wycombe.

Aside

Where I’ve been: on 12 March, I gave my talk at the Tricycle, which sold out! I was delighted, both to see so many friends there, and that people were attending other than my compassionate family & friends. Plus, as well as introducing E & my mother to Adrian Lester (who deteriorates in neither charm nor good looks, it must be said), the Tricycle’s AD, Indhu Rubasingham appeared from nowhere to introduce my talk in an incredibly kind and complimentary way. The audience looked surprised, because until then I think they’d been assuming that the child in the jumper faffing around the projector cable was some sort of admin assistant/work experience minion, rather than the speaker…

Christopher Ravenscroft and Rhiannon Sommers in The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith.

Then on 14 March, I went in to Primavera Productions’ rehearsals for Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, to talk about Pinero, Venice, 1890s theatre, and 1890s morality. I am always willing to discuss AT LENGTH my great love of working with actors. They ask the best questions. This company asked ferociously intelligent questions, and there’s been some great follow-up chat by email. Ebbsmith is enjoying its first revival since 1895, which I initially assumed had to be wrong, but, no – it genuinely hasn’t been done since then! I am so looking forward to the production, not least because (as I discovered after taking the job), fin-de-siecle rakehell the Duke of St Olpherts is being played by Christopher Ravenscroft, who has been a personal hero of mine ever since (as a small child) I saw the film of Kenneth Branagh’s Twelfth Night (1988). Admittedly, I was mainly torn between wanting to be Frances Barber as Viola (hair, eyeliner, waistcoat) or Anton Lesser as Feste (hair, eyeliner, fingerless gloves- I swear Captain Jack Sparrow was a ripoff), but after that, it was Ravenscroft’s Orsino, who languished about in the snow, indulging Orsino’s self-indulgence in what was (and is) one of the most beautiful British verse-speaking voices in history. He was infinitely better than Toby Stephens, and with Frances Barber’s sad-eyed, exquisitely-spoken Viola, they made up a kind of melancholy duet of 80s Chekhovian languor. Plus, Richard Briers was Malvolio, so you should definitely go and watch. So, yes. I got to work with Christopher Ravenscroft, and he’s absolutely lovely. Everyone was absolutely lovely. The actress playing Agnes Ebbsmith (of the title) is Rhiannon Sommers, who is probably wasted every minute of her life she’s not playing Anne Boleyn or Scarlett O’Hara (ignore her Spotlight. Those eyes are green), but who will doubtless be brilliant. The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith runs from 8 April to 3 May 2014 at the Jermyn Street Theatre, and is directed by Abbey Wright.

I’d also recommend you catch Darker Purpose’s production of King Lear at the Cockpit Theatre, which runs until 29 March. David Ryall stars, in a great cast with strong performances throughout all the principal roles. I particularly enjoyed Nikki Leigh-Scott and Ian Hallard as blood-loving aristocrats, the Cornwalls; Charlie Ryall’s intelligent, New Woman Cordelia, and Dominic Kelly as Edgar. Until now, I have always been more bored by Edgar than is printable (even online) but he is excellent throughout. David Ryall’s Lear is as moving as you would expect, and the blinding scene, played entirely in the round with near-universal lighting, provoked both SPATTER and genuine yelps. Go and see it. If you buy a programme, you’ll have not merely a handy blood-shield, BUT ALSO 700 words by me on late-Victorian ennui, poisoned zeitgeists and morbid modern women. Re: Gloucester’s blinding, I discovered a very similar scene, the other day, in Robert Greene’s Selimus, a little-known 1594 play, which was performed by the Globe’s Read Not Dead actors, and introduced by Dr Jenny Sager, at a great if gory conference on Bodies and Body Parts. This was the first Oxford-Globe Forum, and I hope to attend many more.

So, that is where I’ve been. Also, term is over. Can you tell?

Performing The Nineteenth-Century Stage: 12 March, Tricycle Theatre, London

On 12 March, I’ll be giving a pre-show talk for Red Velvet, the award-winning play by Lolita Chakrabarti, directed by Indhu Rubasingham, and starring Adrian Lester, that’s currently on at the Tricycle Theatre. I was historical advisor on the first production and have been asked back to recreate my work in the rehearsal room (scary participation absolutely not required) and to give a seminar-cum-workshop on the process of bringing the nineteenth-century theatre to life! Adrian Lester’s already talked a bit about this process in an article for the Guardian (note the quoted source *cough*), and, seriously, do come along, because it will be awesome. There will be stuff about race, nineteenth-century acting technique, gesture, theatre history, the importance of such vital artistic theories as “big legs” and “the teapot” and how we might represent past acting styles in a way that engages a twenty-first century audience.

And Shakespeare. There’ll be lots of Shakespeare. I’ll also be suggesting the very GOOD things that 1830s acting has to offer us, in our emotion-terrified, minimalist, self-conscious age, now that “melodramatic” is such a perjorative term… there will be race, gender, history of gesture, history of slavery, a lot of original images, and the anecdote about the time Adrian Lester had to fix my old laptop with me. Unlike my original version of this talk, I will not be giving it while sitting on the lap of my audience, with everyone crammed onto a chaise longue behind me. I’ll also be using lots of exciting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century images from theatre productions, some of which are extremely rare!

Tickets are £2.50, and the talk starts at 6.30 on 12 March. Seating is unreserved, and we’ll be in the James Baldwin studio, above the Tricycle’s auditorium. To book tickets, click here. Access information, including how to get to the Tricycle is here. Please do get in touch with any questions, and I really hope to see some of you there.

 

On The Last Four Months

I am still here. I can’t believe I never updated this whirring box of tricks to say that I did, in fact, pass my viva and am, in fact, Dr Sophie Duncan BA MSt DPhil (Oxon) (all right, Dr and DPhil is a bit of a tautology, and if I paid Oriel the necessary LUCRE I could be MA MSt DPhil, but give me my letters and my moment of glory). I had my viva on 27 September, implemented my minor corrections and was officially signed off/passed/”given leave to supplicate” (the last and most bizarre Oxford phrase of my student career) in early October.

Then lots of things happened.

  • I was a Stipendiary Lecturer at St Catz! I loved this job. My colleagues were fabulous, I became embarrassingly attached to the ten Freshers (against whom all future Freshers shall be judged, sternly) for whose education in the realm of nineteenth-century literature I was responsible, and there was a cheeseboard every day. In sunlight, the SCR looks like the triumphant set of a Roger Moore Bond film and, in darkness, a sinister chamber from an old version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
  • I was an Admissions Tutor at Catz. This was very different to my previous experience at Hertford, but equally great. St Catz will have some amazing first-years, come October (well, it has amazing first-years now, see above), and I wish I were going to be teaching them. As ever, Admissions was hectic and fascinating and infuriating and left me with a desire to burn down the British schools system and rebuild it along more egalitarian lines. It also reinforced my faith in the Oxford admissions process.
  • Now I am at Harris Manchester, Oxford’s college for mature students (which means over 21), as Supernumerary Fellow in English. This is brilliant in a very different way: tiny year groups; a small, close-knit SCR; and, frankly, something fascinating happens every day. I also have the most beautiful office (which now contains two framed RSC posters, starring one David Tennant; many mugs from my parents’ kitchen; any number of books; and a typewriter). As you’ve probably guessed, the “mature students” bit means that many of my undergraduates are older than me. So far, all this has meant is that I’m intrigued by their backstories, and what their experiences to date (of work, travel, and – frequently – very successful study in a totally different field) allow them to bring to their work. I should say that my only other “mature student” turned out quite well. On the teaching side, I’m the Organising Tutor for a team of four, all female and relatively early career. This is great.

It’s hard to keep blogging when you’re teaching a lot, less because of the time commitment (it’s not like the DPhil was part-time) than because all the most interesting things that happen in your professional life revolve around your students and colleagues – the things they write, the things they think, the hilarious bits, and the much harder pastoral issues. I can tell you that my Catz students temporarily and erroneously thought I was very jet-setting when I emailed one of them from a plane: actually a last-minute attempt to distract my flying-fear by tapping on my Blackberry before flying to Hamburg for under 72 hours, but they seemed to assume I’d jetted off to the Caribbean in celebration of the end of 4th week. I can also tell you how much I enjoyed seeing Oxford again for the first time, through their eyes, right up to the moment when I found myself being asked to suggest costumes for an Unhappily Ever After bop (one of them went as The Titanic, I’m not really sure how, but I admire it). So my posts between now and June will probably say relatively little about how I’m spending most of my time.

And then, in October, I’m starting a three-year research contact at Magdalen College, Oxford, as a Postdoctoral Research Associate on “Adults at Play(s): The Psychology of Dramatic Audiences”. I’ve got the blurb –

Adults at Play(s) will study the psychology of dramatic audiences. At its heart is the notion of make-believe, which is psychologically puzzling: audiences know that what they see or read is fictional (the characters, the plot) but they respond to it emotionally as if it were real – a form of ‘cognitive dissonance’. This oddity raises psychological questions: what psychological mechanism(s) make(s) these seemingly contradictory mental states (knowing while pretending) possible? What benefit do audiences derive from this investment and engagement? At the same time a reciprocal literary question arises: how do dramatists manipulate the nature and the degree of the audience’s commitment to the transaction (‘I know this is not real but I temporarily behave as if it is’)?
 
Audiences at Play(s) will explore the psychological and literary questions in tandem. The methodologies will be drawn from both psychology and the humanities. We will, on the one hand, carry out practical experiments with live audiences and live drama, as well as cognitive experiments online and in the lab; and we will, on the other hand, study the dramatic texts.
The aim is to further our psychological understanding of how adults believe in things that are not ‘real’ as well as to study the textual and performance-related cues that audiences respond to. Our chosen body of material is Greek and Shakespearean tragedy.
 
– and it’s basically a project about what happens when we go to the theatre. Since going to the theatre is one of the most interesting things in the world, and generally extremely high on the list of things I’d most like to be doing, at any given moment, and this since the project is led by Professor Laurie Maguire, Dr Felix Budelmann, and Professor Robin Dunbar, and based at Magdalen, this is essentially my dream job. The interview remains a blur of terror, although I remember interrogating the panel on why we clap plays, and talking a lot about the time I spent working in Front of House at the RSC. And I had an aggressive handout with bits of bibliography on it. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend any of these as a strategy.
 
Meanwhile, thanks for sticking around, and I hope to start using this blog more frequently!

Victorian Weirdness

I bow to nobody in my appreciation of Weird Victorian Antics, hold a gold medal for getting distracted by bizarre stuff from Victorian periodicals and should in any case really be concentrating on my viva prep / teaching prep / article.

Neverthless, thanks to a database search gone (so) wrong, I just found the following paragraph at the start of an 1888 article on women’s fashion and beauty:

“Hints to Women: [...]

TEA GOWNS. If you want to look your prettiest, to bewitch your husband or big brother, to fascinate your cousin or to charm your friends en masse, get a tea gown.” [emphasis mine. Like the screams]

The guilty publication was The Daily Inter Ocean, published on 12 February 1888 in Chicago, presumably then a city of webbed feet, hairy backs and family trees that would have made Queen Victoria’s maddest lapdog look like a good genetic prospect.

The article then goes on to say that the tea dress is “strikingly English”, to which I can only respond with a whoa there, 1880s Chicago, don’t blame your scary sibling-bewitching fashion tips on us.

Please use the comments to  offer suggestions on what other fashions might have been great, er, ice-breakers in the 1880s, attempt a serious discussion about what this article says about the brother/sister dynamic, or just join me in repeating or big brother in whatever typeface best suits your “my eyes, it burns” textual needs.

[CALL FOR PAPERS]: Victorian Bodies and Body Parts

Victorian Network is an MLA-indexed online journal devoted to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate work in Victorian Studies.

 The ninth issue of Victorian Network, guest edited by Professor Pamela K. Gilbert (University of Florida), is dedicated to a reassessment of the place of the human body in the Victorian literary and cultural imagination. Rapid medical and scientific advances, advancing industrialization and new forms of labour, legal reforms, the rise of comparative ethnology and anthropology, the growth of consumer culture, and the ever changing trends of Victorian fashion are just a few of the many forces that transformed how Victorians thought about the human body and about the relationship between the embodied, or disembodied, self and the object world.

 Nineteenth-century configurations of the body have long been of interest to Victorian scholars. However, recent years have seen the field reconfigured by the emergence of a range of exciting new and theoretically sophisticated approaches that harness the insights of the new materialism, thing theory, cultural phenomenology and actor-network theory to explorations of Victorian embodiment, bodies and body parts.

We are inviting submissions of no more than 7000 words, on any aspect of the theme. Possible topics include but are by no means limited to the following:

·      embodied experience and the senses

·      the body in stillness and in motion: practices of confinement and mobility

·      consumerism, fashion and the stylized body

·      the body and technology

·      bodies of empire and colonialism

·      bodies and body parts on display: anatomical museums, ethnological shows, hospital ward tours

·      sciences of the body: medicine, biology, ethnology, statistics, etc.

·      bodies, sex and gender

·      health and illness

·      affective bodies and embodied emotions

·      labour power and the body as property

·      the poetics and aesthetics of the human body

·      human and animal bodies before and after Darwin

 All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines.
 Deadline for submissions: 30 November 2013.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com

— I am Submissions Editor for Victorian Network, so do feel free to get in touch with any questions. Needless to say I would particularly welcome articles on either Gwendolen Harcourt’s neck, OR David Threlfall’s performance as Smike in the RSC’s first production of Nicholas Nickleby, since I am obsessed with both those things. HOWEVER, there are other people on the VN editorial board.

We also have Twitter now, @Vic_Network. Follow us. Follow. Make merry on my twitter feed and break up the commentary on Celebrity Masterchef, which is in any case meaningless since Speech Debelle left.

(P.S. please conform to the submission guidelines. They’re not esoteric and it makes editors so happy.)