24 years’ work by Lancaster University Professor results in 17th Century play performance

5 September 2018 18:02
Professor Alison Findlay brings Lady Mary Wroth’s play to life in her family home Penshurst Place during filming for a short film interpretation of a love sonnet for an online learning course.
Professor Alison Findlay brings Lady Mary Wroth’s play to life in her family home Penshurst Place during filming for a short film interpretation of a love sonnet for an online learning course

A play, written by a female contemporary of Shakespeare, will get its première this month at the historic house in Kent where it was written 400 years ago, thanks to a Lancaster University academic.

‘Love’s Victory’, by Lady Mary Wroth, was written c.1617 and is the earliest surviving romantic comedy written by an Englishwoman.

Its first professional production is currently being rehearsed and staged at the author’s home, Penshurst Place in the Weald of Kent, thanks to a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

The performance is the result of 24 years’ work by Professor Alison Findlay from Lancaster University.

Her research project, ‘Shakespeare and His Sisters’ was set up to explore the works of Shakespeare and his female contemporary dramatists in site specific locations.

Lady Mary Wroth was the daughter of Robert Sidney and niece of Sir Philip Sidney and Mary Sidney Herbert, who transformed the literary landscape of 16th and 17th Century England. 

Today, Penshurst Place is still owned by the Sidney family, direct descendants of Lady Mary Wroth, and their support has been instrumental in winning the AHRC funding.

Professor Findlay has led the project from the beginning, working for many years to have the play staged in the venue where it was conceived and written.

She explains: “I have been trying to get the play performed since I first read it in 1994. In my 2006 book ‘Playing Spaces in Early Women's Drama’, I argued that the play was composed with Penshurst Place in mind as a performance venue so I approached the Viscount De L’Isle, current owner of Penshurst Place and a direct descendent of the Sidney family and of Lady Mary Wroth, to investigate the idea of putting on a production.

“To my delight, he, Lady De L'Isle, their son, Philip, and the Penshurst Place Board of Trustees approved and four years ago we were able to put on a staged reading of the manuscript.

“Now, thanks to the AHRC funding and continued support from the Sidney family and Board, we are finally able to bring the play to life in a full production at Penshurst Place.”

The troop of professional actors from the Urania Theatre Company are led by director Martin Hodgson who has extensive experience of working at historic venues.

‘Love's Victory’ is the first romantic comedy by an Englishwoman. It is a love story – or a series of intertwined love stories –ingeniously capturing the problems of shyness, miscommunication, despair and ecstasy that accompany the rollercoaster of love, and continue to do so.

“Its survival in manuscript form is crucial evidence of women’s engagement with a dramatic tradition that is usually thought of as exclusively male,” explains Professor Findlay.

“Lady Mary Wroth is one of ‘Shakespeare's Sisters’, who did not, as Virginia Woolf imagined, perish without leaving a word.”

Professor Findlay adds: “Rehearsing scenes in the rooms and historic gardens at Penshurst offers actors and members of the public a heightened sensory experience that makes us think about how feelings are generated by places and by the past. Wroth’s script brings out the emotional depth to Penshurst as a heritage site."

Visitors are invited to contribute to the production process by attending open rehearsals leading up to the performances. Listening, watching and commenting on the script in action, including its many songs, gives visitors a chance help re-make the stage history of Love’s Victory.

Two ticketed performances will take place at 2pm and 7.30pm on Sunday 16th September in the medieval Baron’s Hall at Penshurst Place. Tickets, priced at £20.00 (£10 concessions) can be booked online on the ‘Shakespeare and His Sisters' website, hosted by Lancaster University. http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/shakespeare-and-his-sisters/. The performances will be professionally filmed to reach a wider audience and extracts will be used as part of a free online course.

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