Sunday, 30 June 2013

‘The Oscar Speech’ Blog


‘I am so happy to receive this award for ‘Edith, Elizabeth and I’, and although it is a one woman show, no woman is an island… I am indebted to…’

Alright, I’m jumping the gun, no glittering prizes just yet; in fact I have only just finished the second draft of the script. But with a rehearsed reading under our belts, Estate and Industry previews looming and a management team ready to book that tour, we are so much further along the line then I ever imagined and I can’t help getting a little excited. So much has happened in the last year…and at the risk of sounding a bit Gwyneth Paltrow or Kate Winslet- I couldn’t have done all this without the other people involved. So here’s a bit of a name check.

First of all Simon Magnus. He’s been on board as a creative collaborator, for nearly two years now. It’s all his fault that we’re not doing a straight biography of Edith Sitwell! And I am eternally grateful. Through our devising process I’ve been able to look at my life through both Edith’s and Elizabeth’s stories, and explore in a fun and inventive way the nature and responsibility of trying to portray someone else’s life. This has been scary and painful but also a great joy, and ultimately very rewarding as an actor/writer and human being.
Simon is a very patient and tolerant man, who has put up with a lot without enough praise or gratitude. He is also very inventive and a great devising partner. Our working practise as collaborators has developed and grown, as we’ve explored and experimented with characters, themes, and ideas through discussion, and improvisation- giving me a wealth of materiel to go away and write with. 

Over the next few months Simon will be focussing on his own work with his theatre company Root Experience who are currently producing The Game (www.rootexperience.co.uk). But he will never escape from the ever-expanding Edith Empire and will always be at the heart of the show. I salute you Simon Magnus.
The adorable and always inspiring Bernadette Russell (www.thewhiterabbit.org.uk) put us on the straight and narrow as our dramaturge, sorting out the structure of the piece, and ironing out all those bits that really didn’t make sense.

Then there are all the amazing people who are doing all those things I can’t do: The beautiful and funny Jane Postlethawaite, social media queen, who has set up and runs our Facebook and Twitter pages, and is working on the crowdfunding campaign; the dashing and demure Phil Wellington (www.ilovenewwork.co.uk); the graphic designer creating the publicity image for Edith; and our hero Tom Slater, film maker, and thoroughly good chap who made our Crowdfunding film. ( http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/edith-elizabeth-and-i/x/3462891. )

There are also the new boys on the block: the dapper and calm (needs to be, with me around) Ralf Higgins-actor/director and movement coach, who has already directed the rehearsed reading and will be directing me over the next few weeks for the preview showings. And the suave and sophisticated Peter Huntley and Martin Ball from 1505 Management (1505management.co.uk) who are organising the previews and inviting important people, and generally being charming- ready to book that tour when we have the go ahead.

And talking of charming- there is of course the charming Mr William Sitwell, who has answered my ridiculous questions, allowed me to try on Edith’s hats, fed us delicious cheesecake and who e-mailed us from Dubai to say he was happy for us to preview the show at his offices.

And very importantly there are all the fabulous friends and family, who have donated to the Crowdfunding campaign, have passed on the details, have mopped up the tears, persuaded me to ‘stay on the bus’ and not give up, and who have been endlessly encouraging and supportive.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you to all.

So this may all seem a bit gushing and sycophantic. Not the intention obviously, it’s only fair that credit is given where credit is due and like Queen Elizabeth 1st at Tilbury, its important to acknowledge and rally the troops to prepare for the challenges ahead. (It’s alright, unlike Edith (allegedly) I don’t think I’m a re-incarnation of Elizabeth 1st- but I do look quite good in an Elizabethan frock!)

Also the last few weeks of this project has consisted of a lot of work writing, organising and e-mailing, on my own in front of a computer which is isolating, and it becomes easy to forget that you’re not alone.  In her professional and personal life, Edith was also aware of isolation, and suffered from constantly feeling under attack from critics and enemies. It was true, she had a lot of friend and supporters, and on her 75th birthday she had so many presents and cards, she had to put a thank you note in ‘The Times.’ But Elizabeth Salter (Edith’s PA), in her book ‘Last Years of a Rebel’ revealed that:
‘Whenever she (Edith) was attacked- and as she said herself, hot water was her native element- she would confide in me sadly, ‘Nobody will defend me. You will see. Nobody ever does.’

There seemed to be a constant doubt in her mind that there were troops gathered to fight her corner. Once again, looking at her life has put mine into perspective, and on any lonely day of doubt, I have to remember and celebrate the fact that the troops may be far away, may be otherwise engaged (or just down the pub!) but are always encouraging, supportive and are always waving the ‘Edith, Elizabeth and I’ banner.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Queen Elizabeth the 1st and my invisible brother


I have a brother who lives in Canada. I don’t see him often but we get on well. We Skype now and then, although we never speak of anything serious- just put on silly voices, and hold up messages - childish swear words and insults scrawled on paper. The last time I saw him was particularly amusing as we fell into default teenage behaviour- stealing food from each others plates, taunting each other mercilessly, and playing practical jokes- much to the shock of our parents and to the bemusement of my brother’s kids.


However, for some reason I don’t tend to talk about him…not as much as I talk about my sister, who lives around the corner and is part of my day-to-day life. Sometimes when I mention my brother people say ‘You don’t have a brother!’… ‘I do!’ I say ‘He lives in Canada.’ Once, when I said that, someone replied: ‘Oh, yes…your invisible brother. ’No’, I said,  ‘He’s a real and important brother.’

And so it is with
Queen Elizabeth the 1st in my play Edith, Elizabeth and I. She is a real and important part of the story, although you wouldn’t know it yet as I have failed to talk about her in any of my blogs.


Edith Sitwell wrote two biographies of Elizabeth the 1st- Fanfare for Elizabeth (1946) and The Queens and the Hive (1962). Edith always insisted that these, as well as her other non- fiction and prose work, were just written to make money, as her real work was poetry. However, when published these books were extremely successful, as were English Eccentrics (1933) and Victoria of England (1936).


In her earlier life Edith had said, after attending Winchester Historical Pageant (1908) ‘Queen Elizabeth didn’t come into it, which was such a boon. I am tired of the good lady, and I don’t care about her gowns.’ Although, she later clearly felt an -affinity with Elizabeth, and grew to resemble her, particularly in her later style of dress.


Edith told her secretary Elizabeth Slater- ‘I am a Virgo, I was born on the seventh day of September, on the same day of the year and at the same hour as Queen Elizabeth the First.’ In fact, whilst writing The Queens and the Hive, an astrologer prepared a detailed comparison of their charts. She suggested that both mentally and emotionally Edith was like the Queen, except that Edith was more creative and Elizabeth was more in touch with the common people! Along with ghosts I don’t really believe in re-incarnation and, getting to know Edith, I’m not entirely convinced that she would have talked about being Elizabeth in a past life without a twinkle in her eye and a tiny hint of a wry smile on her lips. And I hope she would have laughed at Barry Humphries reference to this when he (as Dame Edna Everage) opened a Horticultural show at Weston Hall, announcing:    
‘As for me, I’m no ordinary mother and wife
I was Dame Sitwell in a previous life.’
(See Richard Greene- Avant Garde Poet, English Genius- PG 435)


The interesting thing about Edith’s relationship to Elizabeth, for me and in terms of the play, is that Edith’s portrayal of Elizabeth reflect aspects of her own life and her perception of herself; from descriptions of being incarcerated, the fact her father didn’t want a girl, even down to physical descriptions …’That ugly face full of fire, so full of intellectual power and wisdom and vanity, and the exquisite and sensitive hands… (Edith always said that the only beautiful thing about herself were her hands!). This all highlights one of my main themes: How we tell other peoples stories and how our own lives get involved in the telling.


Another fascination and connection for me is that Edith and Elizabeth never married or had families. Edith said of Elizabeth, ‘This strange contradiction of a woman whose life, seen from one aspect, was barren, seen from another, infinitely fertile, was consistent only in her greatness.’ (English Women- Edith Sitwell -1942) They are both strong unconventional female role models, known for their intelligence, individualism and…lets face it really good noses. So why not put them on a stage together and see what happens?


So, I’ve put the record straight both Elizabeth the First and my invisible brother are very much real and have a place in my world. Obviously, only one is alive and kicking, and I think I should get onto Skype (dressed as a re-incarnation of Edith, Elizabeth or Barry Humphries?) and let him know that his invisible sister is thinking of him.

Friday, 17 May 2013

Ghosts

I love Scarborough. It has a faded grandeur, an elegant tackiness about it. But there is nothing faded or tacky about Woodend, a light, and relaxed space, converted into offices/studios for businesses and creatives, with an Arts and Craft Gallery. The Sitwell family bought the house in 1870, and it was where Edith was born in 1887. It was sold to Scarborough Council in 1934, and became the Wood End Museum of Natural History until 2006, when it was adopted for the creative workplace development.
Sheryl Butner, the Finance and Gallery Manager showed me around. In my head I began re-inventing myself- 'perhaps, I could move to Scarborough and become a jeweller, hire the lovely attic room currently vacant and just hang out here all day... that would be easier then trying to write a one woman show about Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth the First and myself! And Woodend feels friendly and peaceful, and a perfect place to be creative. However, Sheryl informs me it is 'allegedly' full of ghosts. This seems to be a theme with Sitwell houses, Renishaw too apparently has ghosts, even to this day. And in Edith's day, Helen Rootham (Edith's Governess and companion) once performed an exorcism at Renishaw to remove an elemental that inhabited an unused wing of the hall.
The theme of ghosts also filtered into Edith's work. In her first attempt at a memoir she states, ‘I have always been a little outside of life, and the things one could touch comforted me; for I am like a ghost’. She never finished this version of her memoirs (her autobiography, 'Taken Care of' was written and published much later on in her life), but some of the materiel generated was used in her poems:
For I was like one dead, like a small ghost,
A little cold air, wandering and lost’
('Colonel Fantock', 1924)

And Virginia Wolf once said about Edith herself, ‘There is something ghostlike and angular about her.’

Sheryl confessed she had never seen a ghost at Woodend, even when she was there late at night with others who at the same time swore they could see the ghost of Lady Ida, and a spectral family dog, (I don't think anyone's seen Edith but I doubt she'd be hanging out there in ethereal form if her mother was also floating about!)

Like Sheryl, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do know that wherever I go, Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire, or back home to Brighton, I now no longer travel alone- Edith and Elizabeth are never far away.

(Find out more about Woodend at www.woodendcreative.co.uk.
Also a special nod to Richard Greene- Edith's latest biographer- I'm reading 'Edith Sitwell. Avant Garde Poet, English Genius,' again, and know that many of my references, quotations etc come from him.)

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Poem’s the Thing…


There’s so much about Edith Sitwell that I find fascinating; her upbringing, personality, looks, fashion sense and lifestyle. Strangely, one of the most essential things about her- her work as a poet- is something I was originally less familiar with. In ‘Edith Sitwell: Avant Garde Poet, English Genius’- Richard Greene refers to Sitwell's poems as "the most important events in her life.”



As a keen amateur analyser of poetry, and an actor/voice teacher who understands the importance of rhythm and language within a play text, Edith’s poetry has a natural attraction, but I wanted a professional opinion.  I went to meet Kate Evans- a poet who has written her own response to Edith’s work- ‘Words in My Head’



Kate lives in Scarborough, (Edith’s birthplace). Another excuse for a family day out, this time with mum, dad and dogs. (They’ll all be glad when I’ve got this ‘Edith thing’ out of my system- although I think the dogs were grateful for a breezy beach walk, and we had a good lunch overlooking the Grand Hotel, the harbour and, to my Dads delight, one of the funicular railways.)



Whilst the family were frolicking on the beach I discussed Edith’s early poems with Kate. We started in the obvious place with Fa├žade- poems set to music by William Walton. The fact that Edith is sometimes referred to as the godmother of rap still makes me laugh. I made a flippant joke in a feature for the Funny Women website- referring to Mr Walton as Will.i. am, adding that in reality you can’t compare him and Edith to the Black Eyed Peas. When you know Edith like I’m beginning to know Edith the ‘down with the kids, gangster rap’ image really doesn’t fit- (apart from the bling, maybe?). But the point is that like rap, her poems rely on the texture of language, sound and image and its relationship to rhythm and melody- And this Kate explained made it innovative. ’It’s radical for its time…a radical jump from the Romantics to Modern poetry.’

Also as Edith remarked to Stephen Spender, as a female poet "There was no one to point the way. I had to learn everything – learn, amongst other things, not to be timid." 

And there wasn’t always support from other female writers. Virginia Wolf reviewed Edith’s poem ‘Clowns Houses’ remarking ‘Miss Sitwell owes a great deal to modern painters and until her optic nerve has ceased to be dazzled it is difficult to say how interesting her vision is.’ (Although it is worth noting, as Richard Greene observes Sitwell and Wolfe’s friendship was complicated, one which was both ‘intimate and competitive.’)



Edith’s later poetry still relied on word, sound and image but also became more intense in emotion influenced by her personal life and world events. The ripping apart of her personal life came in the form of the death of Helen Rootham, the governess who became a life long companion, and, with her tumultuous but platonic relationship with the painter, Pavel Tchelitchew. The Second World War was a ripping apart of the countries national identity, provoking poems such as ‘Still Falls the Rain’. Other events such as a late conversion to Catholicism encouraged religious references and imagery.



I also asked Kate about Edith’s prose; of particular interest to me, as my play focuses on Edith’s biographies of Elizabeth the 1st. Reading Fanfare for Elizabeth and The Queens and the Hive- despite Edith’s insistence that they were non fiction crust earners- the mark of the poet runs through them. Kate described them as creative non- fiction or poetic prose. Again, as a writer and creative, Edith was running ahead of the pack. Kate also said, as writers, we owe a lot to her- ‘We are the God Daughters of Edith’ (I’m glad for this- I’m certainly more suited to being a God daughter of Edith then a God Daughter of rap!)   

I could have talked to Kate for hours about Edith, and her poetry, but had another meeting lined up at Woodend. However there are plans afoot for various Sitwell events in 2014, to commemorate fifty years of Edith’s death, which we will both be involved in. You can also find more about Kate Evans and her work by visiting her blog http://www.writingourselveswell.co.uk/ 

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

To the Manor Born


Whilst up North, during the Easter break, I had a ‘girl’s day out’ with my mum to Renishaw Hall in North Derbyshire. Edith lived there for much of her childhood as well as spending time at Woodend in Scarborough. The Sitwell family have lived at Renishaw for nearly 400 years, and it is currently owned by Alexandra Sitwell, daughter of the late Sir Reresby and Lady Sitwell.

Renishaw has one of those sweeping drives that now cuts through a golf course and as you wind up the hill, the Hall gradually reveals itself.
It wasn’t nearly as grim as I thought it would be. From photos and accounts I had expected something a bit more gothic and brooding, but it was palatably so, and the site is softened with the converted stable block with tearooms, a gift shop and museum.

The beginning of April, but still freezing and nothing visibly in bloom, but Mum and I (knowing that there was tea and cake just around the corner) battled on. The gardens were designed by Sir George Sitwell, (Edith’s father) and developed between 1886 and 1936. Statues, imposing hedges, fountains, woodland, a lake (you know the score), and also some alluring names for the different areas; the ‘Stone Tank garden’, the ‘Wilderness’ and the obligatory ‘Secret garden’.

It is a hard not to look at this place and just write Edith off as someone who came from a very priveleged background, and easy to imagine, as my Mum said, how much fun it would’ve been to grow up there. But she was remembering my upbringing, running around our garden barefoot in summer months with small tribes of siblings and friends, making dens and putting on plays. Edith and her brothers may have had all this space but not the freedom to enjoy it. And Edith certainly didn’t have the relationship with her parents that I have with mine. As the first born, it was a huge dissappointment that she was a girl (and interestingly she never inherited any of the Sitwell homes, presumably because of this fact).
My parents were strangers to me from the moment I was born’, she says in her autobiography ‘Taken Care of’. Sir George spent a lot of time overseeing his gardens from wooden platforms, inventing things (including a small gun to shoot wasps with) and writing books. Titles such as, ‘Lepers’ Squints’,’ Acorns as an Article of Medieval Diet’,The History of the Fork’, and aptly (or perhaps I mean ironically) ‘The Errors of Modern Parents’. Although, it is also easy to reduce him to an eccentric stereotype, and on talking to Renishaw’s archivist - Christine Beevers, this is something she is trying to change by providing a more rounded picture of him.
Edith’s mother (Lady Ida) was a beautiful young socialite who married young, and perhaps inappropriately. She later had a reputation for drinking and gambling, and at one time was tried and imprisoned for fraud. Edith wasn’t conventionally attractive, was fiercely intelligent, played the piano, read poetry, but had interests and ambition that stretched far beyond being a decorative society lady. As a child she was asked- ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ And on replying ‘A genius’ she was promptly sent to bed. She desperately wanted to go to university, but was forbidden by her father, as he believed it to be ‘unwomanly’. Her education instead took place with a tutor, whilst the curvature of her spine was corrected by a metal apparatus- ‘fondly’ known as the Bastille.  

It occurred to me, whilst walking with my mother, how different Ida and Edith were from each other and how difficult their relationship must have been.

In the afternoon we went on a tour of the house; my mother held the eager party up by going AWOL to text my dad. She asked a lot of questions, stood in front of an exhibit that the guide was trying to describe, and narrowly missed tripping over an antique sofa. But (to my knowledge) she has never been imprisoned for fraud or ever had problems with drinking or gambling, and more importantly she, like Edith, is fiercely intelligent, funny, always interested and ever supportive of my crackpot schemes. I can gossip with her about clothes men and music, but I can also discuss the latest play at The Globe or have a good debate about an article in the New Scientist.

Standing next to my Mum in one of the darker hallways, with an imposing staircase, I felt lucky… and a little sad for Edith. I re-considered my attitude to the notion of being ‘Privileged’. And I began to understand why, despite being to the ‘Manor born’, she never felt at home here, and why she needed to escape to an entirely different life.




Friday, 19 April 2013

Where Did You Get That Hat?

Our second meeting with William Sitwell was more informal. Sitting in the kitchen of his office (he works in ‘Food’) drinking tea, eating peanut butter and jelly cheesecake that had just come back from a photo shoot, discussing Edith and various eccentricities of her family and upbringing. (More of this, another time…) On mentioning our plans to raise some money to develop our production through Crowd Funding, William jokingly put in his bid for a cut. When we said he’d be lucky, he rightly pointed out that we had eaten a lot of his cake.

We arrived at our third meeting with him at Weston Hall (Northamptonshire), late, but armed with an abundance of cake. Simon and I had both worked until late the night before, had a typical early Friday morning M25 drive, and would’ve been even later if I hadn’t put my foot down at the last minute.
Nevertheless cake was received gratefully, and the ever charming Mr S proceeded to show us around Weston Hall, which is described as ‘a medium sized, old english manor house’. Edith spent a lot of time here with her youngest brother Sacheverell Sitwell, his wife Georgia, and children Francis Sitwell and Reresby Sitwell. She stayed there during the Second World War, ‘knitting for the troops’ and christening herself the ‘Pullover Queen’. As manor houses go (not that I’m familiar with many) this one is lovely, light and very feminine, which was explained when we found out that since 1714 seven of the nine owners were women.

The best floor of all was the attic. (Attics, I am familiar with. Quite a connoisseur, in fact). Wooden beams, creaking stairs, Victorian doll’s houses and rocking horses. And then a whole room devoted to clothes. Simon and I laughed; it looked like our intended set for ‘Edith, Elizabeth, and I’. But the contents of the clothes rails and hat boxes here weren’t hand me downs from a drama school wardrobe, these were the real McCoy and many had belonged to Edith herself. Heavy dresses of velvet and brocade, tall hats, wide brimmed hats, hats that looked like raffia baskets. I recognised them from photos- but they were even more interesting close up. 

William had to make some calls, so he left us there, and as he went down the stairs, he called up:
‘Try things on if you like’. I stood there with my mouth open, but like lightening Simon rummaged through boxes and rails, passed me hats and gowns, and started snapping away, having his own Cecil Beaton moment.





Whilst at Weston, we also went to Edith’s grave- with a bronze plaque by Henry Moore, and on it, engraved words from one of her own poems, ‘ The Wind of Early Spring’


The past and present are as one-
Accordant and discordant, youth and age,
And death and birth. For out of one came all-
From all comes one.


Looking out over the Northamptonshire countryside, I wondered if Edith was watching over us, and what she would think of this project.

Two days later I received (my first ever) speeding fine, for our last minute dash to this appointment. Perhaps she was watching, and with her sharp and twinkly-eyed humour, decided I should pay for the hat trying on session!

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Back on Track

It’s been a long time since I’ve written here, but from now on, it will be hard get rid of me. Which is how I feel about Edith Sitwell. For better or worse, she’s part of my life now.

Since my last blog in September 2012, we’ve had many adventures with Edith, much has happened and much has changed. Firstly, I’m no longer a mild mannered receptionist. I left for a short sojourn in London playing a gloomy eyed barbarian in Roman Britain for Clio’s Company, (pictured below) and had a few auditions, (including an exciting one at the National Theatre for an Alan Bennett play) but without success.



I returned to the wonderful world of temping, this time as a faceless filer, with the decision to work hard and keep my head down. But Edith was still with me, and my secret ‘other’ life, away from endless admin, continued.


We received an invitation from, William Sitwell, great nephew of Edith, and members of Peters, Fraser and Dunlop, the agents of the Estate to talk about copyright issues.


The West London office had uber receptionists, who not only offered coffee but also recommended it highly (note to self: pay attention to this in order to get a better class of temp job in the future). Simon and I were suited and booted, but nervous. This could be the end of it all. But on the contrary: there were apologies for the inconvenience caused, discussion of plans and permission given (within reasonable parameters) to work on the material and cake...really good cake. As if this wasn’t enough, the charming Mr Sitwell then said that, obviously, in terms of research, I would need to visit Weston Hall (a Sitwell home) and see Edith’s books, hats and clothes. 


When we left Simon said that he thought I was going to literally jump out of my chair and kiss everyone with excitement! I didn’t because I am a sensible adult (even if I do spend a lot of my life dressed up!), but instead I floated down the road to our next destination… We were off again…‘Edith, Elizabeth and I’ was back on track.