Pride & Prejudice & Elderly Fin-de-Siècle Actresses

Currently finishing the book – Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle. Yes, that is exciting. Except when it looks an awful lot like a person with a laptop and 9,000 printouts, who has inexplicably taken to writing her most important notes-to-self on small white squares of paper. Which blow everywhere. Given that I really need to finish the book, I am of course LITERALLY BURSTING with ideas for other creative and academic things.

this picture epitomises elizabeth bennet’s family / drink whenever mrs bennet

Sometimes these are useful. Sometimes they are the outline for a BBC Pride and Prejudice drinking game (drink when anybody says “Make haste!” drink when Mr Darcy looks like he’s swallowed an ostrich!), because 1) it is the single perfect piece of television in our time and 2) although popularly remembered as a witty comedy of manners about two witty and intelligent people who wittily and sexily find each other, it is actually about a witty, intelligent woman who is continually embarrassed by her family, and a young man wearing forty-nine layers of clothing who behaves like her embarrassing stalker and is continually dismayed like unto man who has sat down on a weasel.

The drinking game would also include “drink whenever a woman of mature years sports headgear like unto large burgundy shower-cap” and “drink whenever people discuss how Jane Bennet needs to Do More to entice Charles Bingley into matrimony, conveniently overlooking that thanks to Regency necklines she is practically topless“. There would be special shot forfeits whenever Mr Collins is sweaty and whenever you need strong liquors to sustain you in the face of imdb’s depressing responses to the perennial “Where are they now?” (this outstanding piece of television was apparently career Kryptonite for most of the supporting cast).

#marybennet2k15

Special mentions on rewatching also go to the fact that a) Lucy Briers, as Mary, does truly outstanding background acting every time David Bamber’s Mr Collins approaches the frame, and b) by today’s repulsive and totalitarian body standards, literally every young woman in the Bennett household would be considered a heifer and not allowed on TV. Do buy the DVD. Everything’s been especially remastered and the Making-Of Feature includes Colin Firth going flump onto a crash-mat.

imagine these 5 women with these 5 bodies being allowed to be the sexy leads on 2015 television

Anyway, so that this post may run the gamut of my current niche interests, back to the book. One of the late-stage/late-onset tasks in monograph completion is thinking about the images you’d like. This involves much foraging into online image archives, a job that I last did professionally, as a freelance rights assistant, and which I greatly preferred when I was being paid for it.

But never fear. This is not a post about anything as useful as “the process by which I decided certain images would best support and illuminate my text”. This is “Sophie Duncan’s personal guide to what the actresses in her monograph looked like when they were really, really old”.

‘Dame Madge Kendal’ (1928), by Sir William Orpen. Kendal was then aged 80.

Luckily for theatre and for me, my women tended to live long past their long careers. Madge Kendal was churning out her particular blend of vicious Victoriana as late as the 1930s in autobiographies, while Mrs Patrick Campbell saw the start of the Second World War.

Ellen Terry died somewhat earlier in 1928 (Kendal was palpably delighted to have outlived her), but – like Campbell – made a handful of films. Lillie Langtry died in 1929, as the if anything more languorously named Lillie, Lady de Bathe.

Ellen Terry (1847–1928), pictured in 1925.

There is something pathetic and unnerving in these images, of course – Ellen Terry’s eyes, made bleak by macular degeneration, in this film from 1925, and the frankly spooky sight of the most famous Victorian beauty dolled up by Cecil Beaton. Stella Campbell swelled up.

But they’re still there: more there, somehow, in the new and steadily more unflinching technologies of twentieth-century photography. They are a little ghostly, long past the century in which they made their fortunes and enjoyed so much professional and social freedom, but still marvellous.

Lillie Langtry (1853–1929), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1928, aged 75..

I could also have included Sybil Thorndike (1882–1974), not because she’s the group’s sole successor, but because I think she was one of the most beautiful old women I’ve ever seen. It’s a frequent boast today that Britain’s older actresses do better across the Atlantic than their American sisters, because our women have had less recourse to surgery and retain more expression, character and emotional articulation. I like this idea a lot, of course, but I’m suspicious of the idea that Western culture has a special cache of appreciation for women’s character at any age. I think it’s perhaps just that some women get more beautiful as they get older (Judi Dench and Harriet Walter are two obvious examples).

Mrs Patrick Campbell (1865–1940), pictured by Cecil Beaton in 1938, aged 73.

In any case, it’s lovely for me, at the end of long, long familiarity with a handful of key images (Ellen Terry by Sargent; Madge as Galatea; anorexic Stella Campbell and Lillie Langtry’s bare legs as Cleopatra) to discover these women anew, once old. I hope you enjoy them too. Or, at least, that you enjoy this latest manifestation of a phenomenon wearily familiar to everyone who knows me in real life: my endless Weird Victorian Facts!

[REVIEW] Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre

On Wednesday, I saw Bitch Boxer at the Soho Theatre; a one-hour, one-woman play written and performed by Charlotte Josephine. Having seen Josephine in Julius Caesar earlier this year, I was excited to see her own work – and, to be honest, I’m a bit in love with the Soho Theatre and their apparent directorial policy of ‘stage work that Sophie wants to see, and don’t charge her more than a tenner for doing so’. For me, Bitch Boxer was an incredibly inspiring, salutary and encouraging piece of theatre. Alongside my fascination with the play’s story and characters, I was delighted to see such a young writer and performer performing with such skill and immediacy – and being so warmly received.

Bitch Boxer is the story of Chloe, a young working-class boxer from Leytonstone, East London, who is gearing up for her final qualifying fight before the London Olympics; the first Olympics in which women could box. I am a bespectacled, myopic, borderline-dyspraxic, undersized and severely uncoordinated scrap of laziness, and I came out of Bitch Boxer wanting to box. The play’s exposition of the sport’s technical side is unexpectedly fascinating. I also found Bitch Boxer a more complex and nuanced exploration of boxing than On It, Tony Pitts’s recent Afternoon Play about the late Liam Jones, a young drug addict who attempted to conquer his addictions via boxing. Both plays tell powerful stories of pain and loss, but Bitch Boxer gets far further beyond the predictable narrative of boxing-as-emotional-salvation. Not only does Chloe use boxing to express and control her adolescent anger, but training and fighting give her an identity that reorders and reorients the rest of her life. Bitch Boxer‘s most emotionally articulate scene is Chloe’s recognition that her opponent in the ring is as determined, excited, frightened and committed as herself. This gives the boxer a compassion and respect for the process of fighting that makes the final confrontation moving, but not mawkish.

I said that Josephine was warmly received by her audience, and the vast majority of the reviews have also been excellent. However, one critic has objected in misogynist – and also misspelt – terms that Charlotte Josephine’s body is not plausibly that of a boxer, and that this physical dissonance damages the integrity and believability of the piece. That is an extremely polite paraphrase of what this lone lunatic actually came out with, and I’m not going to link to the review, because, well, don’t feed the trolls.

Firstly, Charlotte Josephine’s body is very plausibly that of a boxer. Secondly, and not to position myself as the tiny Cassandra of critical misogyny, but after watching Bitch Boxer, I was expecting to find that this kind of play would draw this kind of criticism. Women cannot put their bodies out in public looking like Charlotte Josephine looks, without attractive derisive male comment. Josephine looks fit and strong, in a way that’s toned but which connotes substance, strength and stamina, rather than the ultra-tiny LA yoga bod that’s the  mainstream default and pinnacle of the sporty female body. She looks admirably powerful. It’s not really surprising that a woman daring to be visibly sporty, healthy and herself causes controversy: for God’s sake, look at what happened to Rebecca Adlington and Jessica Ennis.

I sat there watching Josephine and I thought how brave she was not to be in Sweaty Betty pinkified sports gear, but instead to look like a boxer, in Lonsdale shorts, black ankle socks and an ordinary vest; all of them sweat-soaked, as the intensely physical piece progressed. And then I wondered what the hell had happened to society, and to my brain, that I found it brave for a young woman to dress as her character without concessions to sexiness, and that I couldn’t ever remember seeing an actress visibly sweat. In order to bring out the troll in one theatrical critic, all Charlotte Josephine had to do was be visible as a professional and as an artist. Quite often, that is all we have to do, as women, to infuriate misogynists: just show up. I encourage you to show up at Bitch Boxer, as soon as you can.

A Snuff Box Theatre production, Bitch Boxer runs at about 65 minutes, includes Eminem karaoke, bereavement, a confrontation with a savage dog, and a controversial pair of Nikes. With Julius Caesar only last month, I’m suddenly incredibly hopeful about the future of feminist theatre.