Brighton Fringe 2017
New Zealander Anne Chamberlain has toured new Zealand and the UK with Eglantyne, in this seventy-five minute show, mounted by MC Chamberlain Presents and directed by KC Kelly, lit by Phil Blackburn effectively and costumed in part by Danielle Chamberlain. At Sweet Waterfront 1 Till May 11th.
What’s in this name? Eglantyne means a prickly rose and smells by any name bittersweet. That’s the story New Zealander Anne Chamberlain has toured new Zealand and the UK with, in this seventy-five minute show, mounted by MC Chamberlain Presents and directed by KC Kelly, lit by Phil Blackburn effectively and costumed in part by Danielle Chamberlain. Period tables and some props hint perfectly at the vanished world Jebb moved in.
Privileged, Shropshire-born Oxford-educated Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928) burned herself out in a variety of causes but is remembered for founding Save the Children (where some of the show’s proceeds go) and an astonishing networking tour of many countries before such things were heard of, even to two hours plus with the Pope. It’s hardly surprised that a recurring thyroid heart problems and stroke carried her off.
What is remarkable is Chamberlain’s empathy and patient tricking out of the devastating heartache that both harried and hurled Jebb to her mission. Her father’s death removes opposition to her going up to Oxford educated by her Cambridge-educated aunt Bunn (even in the 1890s there was second generation). Whilst there her beloved ‘Partridge’ brother dies – the three youngest had stuck together. She has only Dorothy and her husband for support and move in exalted circles: Bloomsbury and Cambridge. Only her failure as teacher breaks her down, her life a spiral in and out of almost suicidal depression.
It’s not true that Jebb wouldn’t have acted as she did without being jilted by Oxford by one Marcus, or later by her intimate friend Dorothy Keynes (of that famous family) when virtually contracting an Edwardian-style gay marriage to her (a man intervenes) all carried out in epistolary delivery; and finally a Colonel Pilkington who just dies of the pneumonia that carried off her father and brother earlier. However, she’s clearly energized by rebuff and loss. Pilkington even reappears as a ghostly conversational presence whom her neighbour Arthur Conan Doyle approves of – he’s by now firmly investigating spiritual life-after-death phenomena. Still, even with a ghost lover life’s bleak enough.
Not that it’s not crowded with activity, with a slew of causes culminating in Suffrage (not perhaps the more militant Suffragettes), saving Bosnian and other Serbian people from starvation (not futile: had thee Serbs not been starving as well a oppressed there might have been no gunshot) and after the War, being arrested for pamphleting on starving children. the DORA or Defence of the realm Act demanded clearance of all causes! Soon all famous writers piled in, including Shaw memorably stating ‘I have no enemies under seven’ and the mountain-top epiphany bringing forth not ten commandments but five edicts was born.
This might seem drab. not at all. chamberlain not only filets Jebb’s thorny story with wit and a light champagne brilliance of presentation, she quotes Jebb’s memorable prose, ‘swept’ being a favourite verb, and most of all parallels her own life. She slips out of Jebb’s RP to her own gentle Kiwi one, describing her own heartbreak with a Marcus and another synchronicities. This isn’t intrusive; if there’s limits as to how it can illuminate is still negotiates these with charm, tact and engaging sympathy.
This could not be conceived better as a one-woman show. The three heartbreaks and final epiphany suggest a alrger canvas might be essayed out of this, but that’s another kind of drama, and continual frustration (except perhaps with her second brief affair) mightn’t suit modern audiences.
This is enlightening and moving in equal measure, not only rendering a great service, but asking after Jebb’s breath-taking leaps of empathy, how far we’ve come since, what kind of vision for rendering humanitarian aid without frontiers we enjoy now. However far, it’s partly down to Jebb.