Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.
We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers from scholars and practitioners in theatre and related disciplines. Suggestions for topics include, but are not limited to:
older actresses on and off stage: as performers, managers, stage-managers, playwrights, producers, directors, and teachers, 1660–present.
older actresses – their approaches to acting and their creative and career strategies
older actresses and the one woman show
older actresses – stage v. film and television
older actresses on ageism and the politics of transgression
writing by older actresses, e.g. memoirs
genealogies of female performance and concepts of female ‘succession’
retirement and its alternatives
‘canonical’ roles for older women; repertoire and ageing
older actresses and non-traditional casting
the depiction of older actresses and/or fictional older actresses in criticism, journalism, literature, the visual arts, and film
ageism, ageing, and the body in casting, rehearsal, performance, and reception
older actresses with additional marginalised identities, including LBT older actresses, BAME actresses, and actresses with disabilities (including age-related disabilities); the intersection of age with other kinds of marginalisation
the older actress in theatre historiography and as theatre historian
retrospectives, gala performances, honours lists and becoming a ’national treasure’.
I have bequeathed both my eyeballs to a redhead named Tabitha. Don’t blame me: it’s the fault of The Swell Mob, ninety minutes of supernatural skullduggery above and below ground in the COLAB factory, Borough. Such is the pull of this immersive piece, set in an 1840s hellmouth with an aesthetic resting heavily on bowler hats, moustachios, and dead girls with terrible backstories that there now exists a document entitling Tabby Skinner (taxidermist; bookmaker; menacing pair of scissors) to both my eyeballs in the event of my death. This was in exchange for a fairly savage tarot reading.
If you like your fun frenetic, frightening, and with a strong flavour of Undead Bill Sykes, this is the show for you. You start off in a pub on surface-level, peopled by welcoming/vicious patrons and madmen, all eager to prise from you the five pound coins with which you’re issued on arrival. Whether you choose cards, bareknuckle boxing (observation only), or weaving into dark corners to open drawers and examine mirrors, what follows unites and divides the audience as you try to solve the mystery of the Swell Mob and their dastardly (and diminutive) Master. The pub setting initially feels quite Punchdrunk, reminiscent of the Manderley Bar in Sleep No More – however, your ticket includes two free drinks, making this the polar if not the global opposite of Punchdrunk and all their works. I advise you to get on with drinking those quite quickly, in order to disinhibit you during what follows.
There are different types of immersive theatregoer. I’m an explorer – I want the weird dark corners, secret passages and demonic contracts to be found inside The Swell Mob’s unlocked drawers, subterranean caves, and behind-the-bar lairs. Give me your bones, your suspended doll-limbs, and let me get my grubby hands on them. The Swell Mob does not disappoint. Despite the relatively small space, there’s ample opportunity to wander, and superb details that’ll leave you longing to return. The trip down to the cellar passes the building’s pigeonholes with plastic-wrapped post visible in the slots. Audience noises from COLAB’s other shows are intermittently audible. Unexpectedly, this really works – the fact that these underworld darklings unconcernedly pass circuitry and plumbing almost two centuries their juniors only reinforces the idea that the bloodshot, sweaty Swell Mob are the supernatural cellarage of redeveloped Bermondsey. Without giving too much away, the plot progresses quickly. On press night, the audience warmed up hugely in the last 30 minutes, as gin entered bloodstream and little teams of explorers tried to solve the mystery of the Master. Occasionally, you feel the pressure of time: I worry I derailed matters by being distracted by Tabitha and tarot moments after I was told to hand an important plot-point to the woman with white feather in her hair. Mid-way through the one-card character assassination, I looked up to find the woman with white feather standing beside me: had the poor girl been forced to seek me out, and was she now not waving so much as drowning?
Probably not. The cast are made of sterner stuff. It’s not clear how deep the specific 1840s connection runs (I withheld comments about Jane Eyre and the possibility of European revolution), but the cast’s commitment is total. There are some electrifying performances; online details of the casting are deliberately sketchy, to preclude spoilers, but Louisa (Jordan Cooper), Elizabeth (Jordan Chandler) and Tabitha (Rosy Pendlebury) are outstanding. This is a vital show that proves that stories can be immersive and compelling without a vast budget. There are moments when you start to think and feel like a character in the story, genuinely scared and exhilarated. I’ll be returning on my own time and dime, and there’s no greater tribute. Whatever your inhibitions or misgivings – and this is not a show for the passive observer – The Swell Mob’s spell lingers. Returning to the surface, the streets outside seemed colder as I made my way to Borough Tube. Visible from the station is the spire of St George the Martyr: the church against which the Marshalsea prison once stood, where Dickens’s father was imprisoned, along with all the other victims and villains of the real Victorian era. When the church crypt became too crowded, the Victorians extracted nearly 1500 crumbling coffins and sent them off to Brookwood Cemetery, created by the London Necropolis Company to house the overcrowded, graveyard-bursting dead. Against that backdrop, The Swell Mob’s story seems only too plausible – and the London evening stayed just that little bit murkier.
THE SWELL MOB, Flabbergast Theatre, *****, COLAB Factory, London. 4 May–25 August, Thursday–Sunday, tickets £26. Book online or via 0333 666 33 66 (+£1.75 booking fee).
You can read my review here, or – even better – pick it up in hard copy from W.H. Smith etc, while issues still remain unpurchased by my delighted extended family. Best of all, buy the books: This Is Shakespeare(Pelican, £14.79) and What Blest Genius?(W.W. Norton & Company, £14.43).
The series is ace, with brilliant on-location sequences at beautiful Wightwick, Killerton, and Osterley (plus some very energetic Incidental Radio Acting), and I haven’t given it the blog love it deserves. It’s been a lovely soundtrack to writing my keynote for next week’s conference at St Hugh’s, here in Oxford. I look forward to seeing some of you soon.
My new book – Shakespeare’s Props: Memory and Cognition – is out now in Routledge’s Studies in Shakespeare series! You can buy Shakespeare’s Propshere (via Routledge), and in all the usual places (at the time of writing, Blackwell’s seems to have the best price).
I hope you’ll see a lot of this book on this blog (and elsewhere) over the coming months – in some ways it feels as though it’s been a long road to publication, and in others as if it’s been a whirlwind.
Many thanks to everyone who’s contributed to Shakespeare’s Props in whatever form – obviously there are acknowledgments within, but I’m mindful of the extraordinary amount of luck and support I’ve had, at both Magdalen College, where I researched and wrote this book, and Christ Church, where I finished it (why am I always proofreading during admissions season?!).
I don’t know if I’ll ever again have the chance to write a book combining Shakespeare with Call The Midwife, or caption a chapter on Early Modern corpses with a still from The Graham Norton Show, but I can heartily recommend the experience. Obviously, in a book about Shakespeare and props, all the big hitters appear – handkerchiefs, skulls, and an accumulating obsession with torn letters – but there’s also the joy of wittily-inscribed chewing gum wrappers, Dido’s oars, and a coda re: the iniquities of HS2 and its impact on London’s props quarter.
Clearly, Shakespeare’s Props is the perfect Valentine’s gift for the Shakespearean in your life. And/or your favourite hoarder-in-training. And/or your beloved institutional library.
This post is a quick resource for students attending my lecture series (title above) in HT 2019. Links to all the handouts shared online are available below. Feedback is welcome, either in the comments section to this post or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). The last lecture in the series will take place this Friday (Friday 15 February 2019) at 11 a.m. in Seminar Room K. All welcome.
Week 1: Southern Gothic, Gay Panic: Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Suddenly Last Summer (1958). Handout.
Week 2: Beckett’s History Plays:Krapp’s Last Tape (1957)and Endgame (1958). Handout.
Week 3: Colonialism: fantasies and nightmares in Caryl Churchill’s The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution (1972) and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (1988). Handout.
Week 4: Sexuality and the Holocaust play: Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979)and Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (1998). Handout.
Week 5: Black Histories: Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona’s The Island (1972) and Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012). Handout.
Thank you to all those who have attended the lectures or been in touch about them – you can still discuss the series on Twitter, via the hashtag #IDtheatre.
I’m delighted to be giving a keynote talk at the conference Women and Power: Redressing the Balance, which runs 6–7 March at St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford. Jointly convened by the National Trust and Oxford, the title responds to the National Public Programme ‘Women and Power’ which the Trust ran in 2018. I’ll be talking about my work with the Trust, researching stories of (pro- and anti-)suffrage and feminist activity in approx 108 Trust places in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and writing the book Women and Power: The Struggle for Suffragealongside Rachael Lennon. Excitingly, said book is now a finalist at the ACE Awards for Best Guidebook with a turnover of over £1,000,000! I fear this may be the only time in my writing career that “turnover of over £1,000,000” is associated with my name. Do check out the other finalists across the categories – sadly, the judges are actual experts and not a Strictly-style phone-in, or I would be going absolutely mad for Suffraduck (Best Product, fighting off competition from Lady Macbeth’s Hand Sanitizer and a RAF tshirt) and the RAF teddy (Best Toy, vs. Build Your Own Lifeboat and a gargoyle).
It would be great to see you at the Women & Power conference! Speakers from museums, historic houses, theatres, and art galleries cover issues from LBTQ women’s histories to women’s presences in the National Archives, Wikimedia, and the DNB. The other keynote speakers are Annie Reilly (National Trust) and Melissa Benn (MELISSA BENN) so please do come if you can. To attend the conference, book here
To download the programme, click here. Any questions, please get in touch below.
This post is to publicise my lecture series this term on Identity and Atrocity in Anglophone theatre since 1945. It’ll be happening on Fridays at 11.15 in Lecture Room K of the English Faculty for Weeks 1–5 of term (18 Jan to 15 Feb), and the outline is below. For more information, leave a comment or email me (sophie.duncan at chch.ox.ac.uk). I’ll be tweeting about the lecture series at #IDtheatre – please join in, whether you’re attending or not!
This series looks at theatre written and performed in Britain, Ireland, America, South Africa and continental Europe since 1945, thinking about how drama presents transgressive and marginalised racial, sexual, and national identities when plays bring the past onstage. The plays in this series, disparate in form and setting, introduce post-1945 drama’s international contexts, exploring some of theatre’s most iconoclastic and influential responses to atrocity. All plays listed below are available via the database Drama Online, except The Island, copies of which are available in various university libraries. Key primary texts include:
Week 1: Southern Gothic, Gay Panic: Tennessee Williams’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Suddenly Last Summer (1958).
Week 2: Beckett’s History Plays:Krapp’s Last Tape (1957)and Endgame (1958).
Week 3: Colonialism: fantasies and nightmares in Caryl Churchill’s The Hospital at the Time of the Revolution (1972) and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (1988).
Week 4: Sexuality and the Holocaust play: Martin Sherman’s Bent (1979)and Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (1998).
Week 5: Blackness and Adaptation: Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona’s The Island (1972) and Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (2012).
N.B. these are not what the articles are called, because the whole point of the collaboration is to provide scholarly and straightforward introductions to important figures in the history of Trust properties, to be read seriously and with informative effect. But those are the article titles in spirit.
obviously the House (I managed to say it!) doesn’t still look like a sun-kissed Loire valley chateau, it now looks like a resentful Venetian winter.
I am now six weeks into my new job. For the next five years, I shall be Fellow in English at Christ Church at the University of Oxford, teaching literature 1550–1760 to undergraduates, and supervising undergraduate and postgraduate work on drama from the Renaissance to the present day. My colleagues’ friendliness belies the buildings’ grandeur, afternoon tea is served daily, it’s the sole Oxford college with its own art room, and the students like play-readings and crisps. For the past four years, my contract has been full-time research with a significant, although intermittent, amount of BA and Master’s teaching across the last four-and-a-half-centuries of Anglophone literature – this is definitely more intense. But teaching the third-year Shakespeare paper alongside the second-year Renaissance paper is rich and rewarding. One reason is that the intensity of tutorial teaching gives tutor and students alike the luxury of focusing on the process and skill of writing as much as on literature. Although Oxford terms can often combine the worst of sprints and marathons, I’m trying to find spaces to help already strong writers develop their written style – and structures – as quickly as possible. Essays are, after all, attempts and experiments, and tutorial teaching allows them to be just that.
The other reason it’s so rewarding is the obvious one: the literature. I was always going to love reading and discussing essays on the drama of this period (i.e. the reason I’m an academic), whether it’s realising why A Woman Killed With Kindness should be read alongside Coriolanus, or getting excited about all the different ways you can die from an Early Modern painting. At the same time, though, it’s been great to work again on John Donne, and Anne Locke, and Thomas Southwell, among others.
Of course, I’m on my second cold in six weeks, I really need a haircut, and my face is falling off. I have, however, overspent on a Christmas tree for my office (there was an even pricier one with two-tone branches. I mourn it). Only two weeks left til Oxmas.