Brighton Fringe 2015
Edith, Elizabeth and I
Venue: The Marlborough Theatre 4 Princes Street, Brighton BN21RD
How much do you know about Edith Sitwell?
I mean really know. We all know that there was Edith and her two brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, and that they were rather aristocratic, and very well connected socially, and extremely avant-garde and knew Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot and the Bloomsbury set in the Nineteen Tens, Twenties and Thirties. But do you know very much more than that?
I certainly didn’t. I knew that Edith Sitwell was some sort of writer, but my only real impression of her came from the paintings and photographs done by her Bloomsbury contemporaries – that narrow face with the striking profile and the flowing clothes and turbans and the huge rings on her long, elegant hands. But I love Woolf and Eliot, and I’m enough of a literary groupie to want to see a play ‘ inspired by the life and works of Edith Sitwell ‘
The stage at The Marlborough Theatre is all black, and there were three tall, narrow shelf units flanking it, stacked high with books. A couple of black and white striped hat boxes at the front corner, and a huge profile portrait of Edith Sitwell, spotlit on the back wall. Apart from the portrait, there was no colour at all, just monochrome black and white, and then Jules Craig came on and stood in profile in front of the portrait – and the resemblance was remarkable – Edith Sitwell doubled, as if the picture had suddenly acquired another dimension.
Jules Craig started off as Edith, inviting us to tea (well, champagne, actually) at her literary salon, in a wonderfully upper-class voice – slowly enunciated patrician tones. Then she stepped downstage and introduced herself as Juliet. As Juliet she spoke much faster, slightly breathless and with a trace of a more northerly accent. Dressed all in black, ankle-length skirt, and a black hair band around her beautiful red hair – hair the colour of expensive marmalade.
Juliet explained that she (like me) had originally known almost nothing about Edith, but that her mother had pointed out the resemblance – both very tall, with a remarkable profile of high forehead and prominent, beaked nose. But they’re both proud of their appearance. As Edith said – "If one is a greyhound, why try to look like a pekinese?"
Edith could be very funny, but so is Juliet. The first time the actress saw a photo of Sitwell she knew – "I was the one who should play her – not bloody Nicole Kidman with a prosthetic nose and five-and-a-half-inch leg extensions!". I should explain at this point that Jules Craig can be very funny indeed, and that the whole show was constantly punctuated by gales of laughter from the packed audience.
Juliet had read Sitwell’s books, and heard recordings of her reading her poetry in that stilted way that they did on the BBC in the Twenties. She wanted discover the real Edith Sitwell, and to tell us her story, and Edith herself sort of … appeared, on stage alongside Juliet, with Jules Craig morphing between the two identities.
Edith holds herself at full height, hands folded together under her bosom, and peers down at Juliet with lofty hauteur – "I am a Dame Commander of The British Empire, and therefore should be addressed as Dame Edith". Juliet is ever so slightly stooped, arms generally apart to emphasise some point, making her shorter than Edith so she has to look up at her.
Jules Craig kept switching identities as the conversation proceeded, looking first in one direction, and then changing direction, body attitude and voice to become the other woman. It was done so well, and so seamlessly, that we could not help but see two women on the stage. In a kind of ‘persistence of vision’ (as when individual film frames flow together to give the illusion of movement) I could still see Edith standing there when it was Juliet who was gazing up at her, asking a question. Remarkable.
And Juliet’s questions, of course, brought out the facts of Edith’s life – her unhappy childhood, her early quitting of the family home to share a small flat with her ex-governess, her poetry, her literary associates, her own books – even her relationship with the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew – which Edith described as "Complicated!"
We were told about her ‘Façade’ performance, where she read her poems through a megaphone, while hidden behind a curtain. Poems set to musical themes by composer William Walton – "Willie gave me certain rhythms …" Juliet is a bit slow in keeping up with Edith’s exposition of Assonance and Dissonance (as was I)and is admonished by Edith (those patrician tones again) – "I am patient with stupidity, but not with those who are proud of it". She questions Juliet’s competence, and when the actress replies that she has a degree – "and a shorthand certificate somewhere", Edith’s icy response is – "Then take notes".
Wonderful. Juliet finally wins her over by praising her poetry – "Please, do call me Edith", and they get on to the subject of the treatment of women in society. Edith’s parents – "didn’t believe in educating gels" and it was only her brothers who went to Eton (Osbert) and Oxford (Sachie). Juliet is outraged – "Don’t even get me started on paternalism, like bloody Henry the Eighth only wanting male children!" Edith had written two books about Elizabeth I, so the Virgin Queen is close to both their minds, and suddenly she appears – it seems they’ve summoned her onto the Marlborough stage, too.
So now there were THREE women on stage, a stage dominated by the monarch. "I am Elizabeth Tudor. Gloriana". Jules Craig gave us a wonderful demonstration of the feudal system, playing Elizabeth with a bellowing voice and hands mannishly placed on hips, while the suddenly diminished Edith Sitwell bends in subservience and addresses her submissively. Switching through three separate identities with quickfire repartee, but keeping each perfectly distinct, was something I would not have believed possible had I not seen it there in front of me.
Juliet wants to ask her about Dudley (Earl of Leicester) but Edith is horrified by the impertinence. The Queen booms on about lovers, and not having lovers, and everyone around her constantly questioning whether, and where, she had lovers.
Finally they get rid of her, as the Queen is too boorish to be decent company. But they are struck that Elizabeth had used her legendary virginity as a defence – both political and emotional – in Tudor England. Juliet has been constantly probing into Edith’s emotional life – "People said you were a sex-starved spinster who needed someone to take her to bed". Are the books, the flamboyant appearance and the eccentric lifestyle just an elaborate defence to keep Edith’s inner life secret?. Now Edith turns the tables, asking the actress –
"So are you married, children?"
"I wanted children" – a long pause – "This isn’t about me"
"Isn’t it?" responds Edith.
Juliet’s voice goes very soft as she lays out her life as a middle-aged single woman, with no children and an unpredictable career path – "trying to work out what I’m going to do for the next twenty years" . . . "No more questions"
Three spinsters in this story – Edith, Elizabeth … and Juliet. It struck me that Juliet was trying to make sense of Edith’s life in order to make some sort of sense of her own. I couldn’t help wondering where Jules Craig herself fitted into all this.
Juliet had originally come to know Edith through her poetry, and near the end she asked her to recite from ‘An Old Woman – Harvest’. (I didn’t know it before – thanks, Google – and thanks, Jules). There had been three childless spinsters on stage, and I was very close to tears as Edith spoke the lines –
And I who stood in the grave-clothes of my flesh
Unutterably spotted with the world’s woes
Cry, “I am Fire. See, I am the bright gold
That shines like a flaming fire in the night – the gold-trained planet
The laughing heat of the Sun that was born from darkness
Returning to darkness – I am fecundity, harvest.”