Category Archives: History

A FREE SPIRIT AND A FEARLESS ARTIST: COLETTE AT 150 ·

(Olivia Salazar-Winpear’s, Jennifer Ben Brahim’s, Marion Chaval’s, and Magali Faure’s report appeared on France 24, 1/26.)

A century and a half after her birth, Colette remains an icon: a bestselling author, a music hall star, a mime artist and, eventually, an elder stateswoman of French literature. We discuss her extraordinary trajectory with author Emmanuelle Lambert, whose book “Sidonie Gabrielle Colette” takes us through the many faces of the trailblazing artist. We also we take a trip to Colette’s childhood home in Burgundy to learn more about how her rural roots fed into her artistic output and her worldview.

MOLI-ÉIRE: LADY GREGORY’S GALWEGIAN TAKE ON THE FRENCH SHAKESPEARE ·

(Michael Cronin’s articl appeared in the Irish Times, 12/20; Photo: Lady Gregory; the Irish Times.)

Molière became a mainstay of the early Abbey stage, but not all critics were impressed by French playwright’s characters speaking Hiberno-English

On January 15th, 1622 Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was baptised in the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris. Four hundred years later the birth of the playwright, who later adopted the stage name Molière, is being celebrated by performances, exhibitions and academic conferences in his native France and around the world.

Molière, whose posthumous reputation has fared better internationally than that of his more classically oriented contemporaries, Racine and Corneille, has indeed become so famous in French that the language itself is often referred to as the ‘language of Molière’ just as English is dubbed the ‘language of Shakespeare.’ His creation of memorable stage types (the miser, the hypocrite, the hypochondriac); the inventiveness of his comic repartee; and his resolute aversion to all forms of social pretension and hypocrisy have ensured his enduring popularity centuries after the first performances of his works, where he often played the leading role.

The attractions of Molière were not lost on one of the major figures of the Irish Literary Renaissance, Lady Augusta Gregory. When the Abbey Theatre received its legal patent in 1904, one of the conditions was that it would confine its productions to contemporary Irish drama and European theatre classics. The idea was to not antagonise the owners of existing commercial theatres, who made their money from more standard fare.

As the Abbey sought out European dramatists who might fulfil its mandate, the choice fell on Molière, because, in the words of Gregory, ‘his affinities with folk drama have made [his plays] easier to our players.’ The Italian tradition of the commedia dell’arte, with its repertoire of recognisable types, had strongly influenced Molière. This was mirrored in the folk drama favoured by Lady Gregory which drew on the recurring characters and story types of Irish folklore.

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‘IT’S VERY TOUGH’: UK CASTLES, MUSEUMS, THEATRES TO CLOSE AS ENERGY PRICES HIT ·

(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Guardian 12/31;  via Pam Green; Photo:  The gatehouse at Nottingham Castle. The site has been forced to close, despite a three-year, multimillion-pound renovation. Photograph: Ian Dagnall/Alamy.)

Rising costs have led to staff redundancies and curtailed opening hours as nine out of 10 sites fear they could close permanently

Theatres, museums, castles and other heritage sites are making staff redundant, turning down the heating, shutting rooms to the public and closing early.

The findings come from research that shows nine in 10 such sites across the UK now fear for their future.

The alarming findings reveal that 84% are having to slash costs to survive. The survey, conducted by OnePoll, was commissioned by Ecclesiastical Insurance, specialists for the heritage sector. It involved 500 “decision makers” within UK heritage organisations, including museums, galleries, theatres, hotels, castles and stately homes.

“Nine in 10 heritage leaders are really concerned about their organisation’s future,” said Faith Kitchen of Ecclesiastical Insurance. “Many heritage organisations – not just one or two – will be at risk of closure in the next few years if costs continue to rise. That’s pretty shocking and sad.”

Almost half of those questioned said they were having to make staff redundant with almost as many reducing their opening hours. Amid rising fuel and energy prices, they were limiting rooms that were open and heated (42%) and restricting public access by opening on fewer days (39%). They were also renegotiating contracts with existing suppliers (45%), which will no doubt take its toll on those businesses.

Some heritage sites have already closed, including Nottingham castle, whose trust confirmed in November that it was “saddened and hugely disappointed” to be closing, but visitors were “significantly below” the 300,000 a year projected after a three-year, £33m renovation.

“That, to me, really stands out because normally – in any other economic time – to have that refurbishment, you would then expect that to be a really successful aspect for the local community,” said Kitchen. “But because of the cost of living, the community aren’t able to support it in terms of visitors. The whole landscape is different post-pandemic.”

Other closures in 2022 include Eastleigh Museum in Hampshire. On its website, Paul Sapwell, chief executive of Hampshire Cultural Trust, states: “We are unfortunately not in a financial position to support staffing the museum and front-of-house running costs with the venue in its current form, as revenue from the existing shop and cafe is not sufficient to support the operations.”

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‘SHE’S WRITING IN A STATE OF EMERGENCY’: LILLIAN HELLMAN’S THRILLING ‘WATCH ON THE RHINE’ ·

(David Jays’ article appeared 12/12 in the Guardian; Photo: ‘Action, activism and engaging with the world’ … Lillian Hellman in 1945. Photograph: AP.)

As Hellman’s 1941 play is revived at the Donmar Warehouse in London, director Ellen McDougall and dramaturg Emma Jude Harris explain how it remains a call to arms

“We’re shaken out of the magnolias, eh?” muses a matriarch towards the end of Watch on the Rhine. In Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play, a comfortable Washington family is confronted with the reality of Europe’s fight against fascism – and must make a choice about where it stands.

Written and set during a time when the US was reluctant to enter the second world war, it occupies a genteel living room, but the world rattles the walls. It’s undoubtedly an engrossing period thriller – but, according to Ellen McDougall, directing the Donmar’s new production, “there’s something really exciting about doing this play now. It’s a powerful call to arms.”

We meet during a rehearsal lunch break, but neither McDougall or dramaturg Emma Jude Harris touch their food. There’s way too much to discuss. McDougall zeroes in on the time of writing. “It’s very specific – if it was set even a month later, it might have been a different picture.”

American-born Harris expands on that moment, when the neutral US was still trading with both Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. “America was coming out of its isolationist period, with an idea that they can’t get involved [in another European war]. There was also an antisemitic notion that this is a special interest, Jewish problem for a particular marginalised community very far away, and that America needs to focus on America. It wasn’t until after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941 that it got involved. In July 1940, when the play is specifically set, there has not yet been a decision. This is the hinge point.”

Considering the characters, McDougall says, “what they don’t know but we now do is huge. The specificity of that moment actually opens up why it’s relevant now – the idea of being on the brink, not knowing what’s coming but having conviction. Hellman’s position is that we have a responsibility to step up to the plate. It translates to now: about action, activism, and engaging with the world.”

Sara, the matriarch’s long-estranged daughter, returns from Europe with her husband, Kurt Müller: both are active in the resistance to Hitler. Strangely, perhaps, there are no Jewish characters. “The only time it comes up,” Harris notes, “is to negate [the suggestion] that Kurt is Jewish.” She believes Hellman felt her ethnicity might indicate special pleading: “particularly as she’s of German Jewish heritage. The stakes would have been especially high for her. We see this kind of soft pedalling on Jewishness with playwrights of that time, in order to make a universal point – but it’s very much there.”

Hellman was no armchair pundit. “She has seen a lot of the things she talks about first-hand,” McDougall says. “She’s been in Spain during the civil war. She was in Germany during the rise of fascism, and met people doing similar work to the Müllers. She’s writing about a world that she knows all too well.” For this reason, McDougall bridles when Hellman’s writing is dismissed as melodramatic. “She’s writing in a state of emergency, and renders that in a way that is thrilling, in all senses of the word – but it’s a protest play.”

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IRENE CARA OBITUARY ·

(Adam Sweeting’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/27;  Photo: Irene Cara as Coco Hernandez in Fame, 1980, directed by Alan Parker. She also sang the title song, which topped the British singles chart. Photograph: MGM/Allstar.)

American actor and singer best known for her role in the film Fame and co-writing the 1983 hit Flashdance … What a Feeling

Although her catalogue of recordings was not large, there were two songs that guaranteed Irene Cara a permanent place in the pop music hall of fame. In 1980 Cara, who has died unexpectedly aged 63, announced herself by topping the British singles chart with Fame, which also went to No 4 in the US.

It was the title song of Alan Parker’s eponymous film, documenting the struggles of students at New York’s High School of Performing Arts. Cara’s character, Coco Hernandez, was originally a dancer, but

The song’s pumping, anthemic tune and ecstatic lyric made it the perfect embodiment of every wannabe star’s ambitions – “I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna learn how to fly … I’m gonna make it to heaven, Light up the sky like a flame.” Its aspirational influence reached down the years through a string of talent shows such as American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor. Cara also became an inspiration for other Latin artists. The actor John Leguizamo tweeted: “She made me believe that if you were Latin you could make it! She fuelled my community.”

Both Fame and another single from the film soundtrack, Out Here on My Own (a Top 20 US hit), were nominated for Oscars, and since both were sung by Cara she achieved the rare feat of singing more than one song at an Academy Awards ceremony. Fame took the best original song statuette on the night. But her best was yet to come. Oscar night, 1984, found Cara back in the spotlight, basking in the glow of her huge success with Flashdance … What a Feeling.

It was the title song from Adrian Lyne’s film Flashdance, and it occupied the No 1 slot on Billboard’s Hot 100 for six weeks while topping numerous other charts around the world. This time Cara was one of the songwriters, along with Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey, and shared in the triumph when it won the Oscar for best original song.

It also picked up a Golden Globe and two Grammys. The film was the story of an ambitious dancer trying to win a place at an elite dance conservatory, and Cara wanted the lyric to show how the character is “in control of her body when she dances and how she can be in control of her life”. She added: “I did sense that I had something special with this song.”

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SHAKESPEARE PORTRAIT SAID TO BE ONLY ONE MADE IN HIS LIFETIME ON SALE FOR £10M ·

 (Nadeem Badshah’s article appeared in the Guardian, 11/17.  Photo:  The portrait is unveiled by conservator Adrian Phippen (right) and Art and Antiques writer Duncan Phillips. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA.) 

The artwork by Robert Peake went on display on Wednesday at Grosvenor House hotel in west London

A portrait said to be the only signed and dated image of William Shakespeare created during his lifetime has gone on sale for more than £10m and is being displayed in London.

The owner, who wishes to remain anonymous, is offering the piece for sale by private treaty without an auction.

It is the work of Robert Peake, court painter to King James I, and is signed and dated 1608. The artwork went on display on Wednesday at Grosvenor House hotel in west London.

Prior to 1975, the picture hung in the library of a stately home in the north of England, once home to the Danby family. Since then it has been in private ownership.

Those behind its sale claim the connections between Shakespeare and Peake are “extensive” and that the artist was regularly commissioned to paint the portraits of high-ranking members of the court and Jacobean society.

They also noted he was commissioned by the Office of the Revels, which oversaw the presentation of plays, and worked in the premises in Clerkenwell, London, where some of Shakespeare’s plays were rehearsed.

However, only two paintings of Shakespeare, both posthumous, are generally recognised as validly portraying him – the engraving that appears on the title page of the First Folio, published in 1623, and the sculpture at his funeral monument in Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare died in 1616, at the age of 52.

Art expert Duncan Phillips, who investigated the work ahead of the sale, said: “There is more evidence for this portrait of Shakespeare than any other known painting of the playwright.

“It is a monogrammed and dated work by a portrait painter of serious status with connections to the artist who produced the image for the First Folio.

“The picture has survived the past 400 years almost untouched by wear and tear thanks to its ownership by a family of Shakespeare enthusiasts who hung it in their library.”

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IN ‘THE CHINESE LADY,’ PREJUDICE AND EXPLOITATION, SEEN FROM A STAGE (BOSTON) ·

(Don Aucoin’s article appeared in the Boston Glober, 11/14; Photo:Jae Woo (left) and Sophorl Ngin in “The Chinese Lady” at Central Square Theater.NILE SCOTT STUDIOS.)

CAMBRIDGE — When it came to the craft of writing, E.B. White’s famous dictum was: “Don’t write about Man. Write about a man.”

That’s the path Lloyd Suh took with “The Chinese Lady,” and it has yielded a small gem of a play about a person who is seen and unseen at the same time.

After premiering in 2018 at Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company and then running at New York’s Public Theater earlier this year, “The Chinese Lady” is now at Central Square Theater under the sensitive and astute direction of Sarah Shin.

Suh’s play was inspired by a real-life figure, Afong Moy, who was brought from China to New York in 1834 at age 14 and put on display in a museum. At Central Square, Sophorl Ngin delivers an expertly shaded portrayal of Afong that traces her emotional arc while also signaling the slow-but-steady dawning of her consciousness. As Atung, her translator, Jae Woo delivers a note-perfect performance.

Over 90 absorbing minutes, with only occasional lapses into overly message-y territory, “The Chinese Lady” essentially distills the history of anti-Asian prejudice and exploitation in the United States — as well as the (very) dark side of the immigrant experience — within Afong’s story.

When we first meet her, Afong is heartbreakingly innocent and chipper. Seated on an upholstered chair at center stage and smiling brightly, she explains — as if there were nothing odd about the arrangement — how her family “sold me for two years of service” to two traders from an American import company. Now she is on display “for your education and entertainment.”

At each performance, Afong enacts various rituals: eating rice with chopsticks, brewing tea, walking around a room on her bound feet. She tells us that the terms of the deal that brought her to the United States were that she would return to her homeland and her family in two years. That does not happen. In “The Chinese Lady,” her servitude lasts for decades.

Those of us in the Central Square Theater essentially function as stand-ins for 19th-century spectators, implicating us in all we see and hear in “The Chinese Lady” — a notion shrewdly underscored by director Shin when Afong tears down upstage curtains to reveal a large, circular mirror. From then on, we watch ourselves watching.

Crucially, Shin avoids the kind of ham-fisted staging decisions that seriously marred the ending of the otherwise excellent Public Theater production. What Shin has devised for the ending at Central Square is less showy and comports better with the nature of the play.

At first, Afong is touchingly eager to make a connection with Americans (she speaks glowingly of “your first emperor, George Washington.”) Afong sees her role as that of cultural ambassador, a human bridge of understanding between China and the United States. Atung, the translator, clearly knows that the museum’s goal is nothing so noble as that.

Outside that room, history inexorably unfolds: the construction of the transcontinental railroad, starting in 1863 and using primarily Chinese laborers; the 1882 passage by Congress of the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese migration to the US. Inside that room, Afong and Atung are growing older. “With each passing hour, I am less and less Chinese,” Afong says.

Their relationship evolves over time, defined by amusing byplay at the start. With the hauteur of a born star, Afong tells the audience several times that Atung is “irrelevant” to the show; his imperturbable responses, which she recognizes as passive-aggression, get on her nerves.

As years pass and they play their roles day after day, including a 40-week tour of the Eastern states, they achieve a certain solidarity, perhaps bolstered by a realization that they are both, in different ways, trapped. But are their fates as inextricably tied together as Afong believes they are?

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‘I THREW MY ARMS AROUND BECKETT!’ – ELECTRIFYING FIRST NIGHTS, BY CIARÁN HINDS, EILEEN ATKINS AND MORE ·

(Dominic Dromgoole’s article appeared in the Guardian 10/26; via Pam Green; Photo: A hallucinatory experience’ … Frances Barber with Amanda Abbington and Reece Shearsmith in The Unfriend. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

The author of a new book about the greatest openings in theatre history asks stars of stage to recall their most thrilling first nights – and the occasional disasters that befell them

History has no shortage of explosive first nights and openings. Moments in public art when the concerns of an epoch meet the truths of artists and catalyse a volcanic response. These are the nights when pins can be heard dropping, when time is stretched into unforeseen patterns, when success is grasped or failure faced. For artists they are electrifying. Here are some stories from the frontline.

‘Beckett stood there like a stone but I carried on’

Eileen Atkins, attending Beckett’s Play, 1964
There were three figures on the vast Old Vic stage, all encased in jars. They did the same script twice through. Mad about Beckett anyway, I was overwhelmed by the cleverness and what it did to my brain. It was extraordinary the difference in effect when done at first one pace, then an entirely different one. The whole meaning shifted. Later I was in a car when I saw the director George Devine walking along with a man. I leapt out and shouted: “George, George, I just saw your amazing play.” “Well, say hello to the author,” he said and there was Samuel Beckett. I threw my arms around him and he stood like a stone. I wasn’t going to let him make me feel abashed, so I carried on.

‘The silences that night were spellbinding’

Anne Reid, The York Realist, Royal Court, 2003
I had no idea this was such a good play. The first time I read it, I thought: “Oh no, not another northern mother. Boring.” I was 64 and I’d never worked in London before. Peter Gill directed it so beautifully. Everything was specific in its choreography: this is the height to hold a teapot, this is how to take off and hang a coat. Whatever the action, he said if you take your time and present it, the audience will find it interesting. And he was so definite about pace: play the first scene legato, the second pizzicato – he really knew the music of a scene. The silences in the theatre that night … spellbinding! Later, we went to the Royal Court bar and as Peter walked down the stairs everyone burst into applause.

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