Originally commissioned for Live Theatre twelve years ago, Shelagh Stephenson’s A Northern Odyssey adapts well to the People’s Theatre in the way no-one else could do it.
I confess, I missed Shelagh Stephenson’s A Northern Odyssey the first time round. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, this was before I’d got familiar with works such as The Memory of Water and Five Kinds of Silence and realised how good a writer she was – and secondly, this was at a time when I was being deluged with identi-kit “local” plays with the laziest of north-east references. However, this one went down very well and I wished I had caught it. So I was keen to take the opportunity to catch up on this, but also see what the People’s Theatre can do with this.
Unlike the aforementioned plays, where Stephenson had full creative license to do what she liked, this is about a real character, Winslow Homer, considered by many one of the greatest American painters. (Not to be confused with his Ancient Greek namesake to wrote a book called The Odyssey – thanks Shelagh for making that so simple.) We know he spent two years in Cullercoats, back when it was a fishing town in its own right rather than an area of a conurbation in North Tyneside; something that many art historians considered a step change in his work. Although most of the characters in this story are fictitious, we do know it happened at a time when seeing the world – or even a different part of your own country – was consider a niche pursuit and many people lived their whole lives in the same town down what they always do.
Where Stephenson can put her imagination to work is Homer’s personal life. Not that much is known, but he never married. One possible reason was that Homer was gay. That scenario is explored in the play, although it never firmly comes down on one side of the fence. What is without doubt, however, is that the 19th century is not a good time to be openly gay, or even secretly gay, and it was common for gay men to marry women and have children to fit in with society’s expectations. And the consequences of this were often tragic.
JUMP TO: Broken Biscuits
Shelagh Stephenson’s new play Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing could have been preachy, but instead forms an intelligent insight into the attitudes of early Victorian Britain.
Live Theatre has had a busy end to 2016, with three productions in three months. Amongst them, I had high hopes for a new play by Shelagh Stephenson. She is best known for The Memory of Water, which is a fantastic play (don’t watch the film adaptation, see the vastly superior stage version). This one, however, is the second of a Tyneside-based trilogy, a more fact-based drama with a stronger local connection, directed by jointly by her and Live’s artistic director Max Roberts. Harriet Martineau, regarded by many as the first female sociologist – and regarded by some as the first feminist – stayed in a Tynemouth boarding house for five years, unable to leave because of an illness. But was she really unable to leave?
With identity politics all the rage over large swathes of the arts right now, I did have a slight worry this play might reappropriate a historical story to put shoehorned parallels with modern political narratives first and accuracy a long way second. But instead this play takes a very different route. It does not lecture on morals, rather it explores how different attitudes were in 1848 to the issues Harriet championed. Today, it goes without saying that slavery is bad and votes for women are good. In this play, however, one issue is met with broad ambivalence and the other is a fanciful notion barely anyone given thought to. There are bizarre social expectations such as eccentric Impie, formerly looked down on as a spinster; after a ten-day abortive marriage ended with her useless husband’s death by falling pig (no, really), she’s suddenly elevated to the far more respectable status of widow. Continue reading
This is an old article reviewing the New Vic production I saw last year. If you are looking for the Durham Dramatic Society production that I’m directing this year, you’ll find it here.
Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water is on the school English syllabus for a good reason.
By accident or by design, I seem to keep ending up watching plays with a dysfunctional family theme last year there was the excruciating Cooking with Elivs, and before that was the equally excruciating Chalet Lines. But pre-dating both these plays is the extremely popular The Memory of Water by Shelagh Stephenson. Now, don’t worry: in spite of what the title might suggest, it’s not about an old lady who is miraculously cured of cancer by repeatedly diluting a substance in water until there’s no trace of the original substance left (although this daft theory and other old cobblers forms a sub-plot to the play). Instead, this is a reference two three sisters who used to play in the sea together on the Yorkshire coast.
Now grown up, the three sisters are back together following the death of their mother, and it would seem their mother once took part in a genetic screening programme to ensure her daughters had three specially-selected personalities to render themselves fundamentally incompatible to each other – and their mother. For a start, all three sisters have conflicting memories of the past, and who was whose favourite. There’s oldest sister Teresa who runs a bollocks “health supplement” store, and Mary, who is a highly successful proper doctor – already not a good sign. Neither does it help that it was Teresa who did all the work looking after her dying mother which Mary was busy doctoring and having an affair with a married man. Add in youngest sister Catherine, drama queen, attention seeker, and on her 78th boyfriend. Sisters do of course comfort one another in the aftermath of break up normally, but when you’ve already lost count of the number of times she’s said that this one is definitely definitely definitely the love of her life and can’t possibly go wrong this time, it gets a bit tedious.