Category Archives: Life writing, Creative writing and Performance

Reinventing Stardom on the Strand

by Rob Gallagher, postdoctoral researcher with Ego-Media

“I was photographed three times a week[,] for which I received a settled income…

Two famous dressmakers, one in London and one in Paris, dressed me for nothing, and a famous English designer called her models after me and made my clothes at a very nominal fee…

My picture advertised all sorts of wares, and face creams and soaps, and I gave advice in all the papers on how to keep healthy and beautiful and young. If I had followed the regime I laid down, I could never have finished in the twenty-four hours…”

So writes Constance Collier in her 1929 memoir Harlequinade, reflecting on her time as a ‘Gaiety girl’ on the 1890s Strand. On 8 February, I’ll be talking about Collier as part of an event at the London Transport Museum, themed around London love stories, representing the Centre for Life-Writing Research’s Strandlines project (an online archive of stories about ‘life on the Strand, past, present and creative’ – do contribute if you haven’t already…). I’ll be describing how Collier and her co-stars won the hearts of late Victorian Londoners with a series of racily contemporary ‘musical comedies’ combining cutting-edge fashions, romantic spins on everyday scenarios and saucy/sentimental songs. Pitched somewhere between ‘legitimate’ theatre and burlesque, musical comedies turned Gaiety impresario George Edwardes into a very rich man and many of his ‘girls’ into household names. Continue reading Reinventing Stardom on the Strand

In troubling times, it’s best to turn to your inner poet

by Ruth Padel, Professor of Poetry. Emerald, published by Chatto & Windus, is her 11th poetry collection.

“Never be afraid of saying you like poetry,” Jeremy Corbyn told thousands of people at Glastonbury in 2017, after reciting the end of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy‘:

“Rise like lions after slumber … / Shake your chains to earth like dew … / Ye are many, they are few”.

Shelley wrote that poem – an apocalyptic vision of Britain’s destructive, corrupt, hypocritical rulers – after the Peterloo massacre in 1819, when the cavalry charged a peaceful crowd listening to speeches on parliamentary reform. Fifteen people died. “I met Murder on the way/ He had a mask like Castlereagh/ Very smooth he looked, yet grim;/ Seven blood-hounds followed him”.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Alfred Clint, via Wikipedia.

In the following stanzas, the foreign secretary, prime minister and lord chancellor of the day accompany Lord Castlereagh, the leader of the House of Commons, through the groaning land, along with Anarchy, Shelley’s name for capitalism. The procession is stopped by a young woman called Hope (who “looked more like Despair”), who lay down in front of the horses.

I learned about Corbyn’s endorsement of poetry in discussion with Shami Chakrabarti in a “poetry and human rights” event at King’s College London, part of a series that highlights poetry’s conversation with all aspects of life, public or private, political or scientific. Continue reading In troubling times, it’s best to turn to your inner poet

Shakespeare at war

By Amy Lidster, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of English, @amy_lidster

Productions of Shakespeare’s plays have been regularly used to comment on the political and public affairs of their performance moment – occasionally provoking heated responses. In 2017, for example, the Public Theatre’s production of Julius Caesar at Shakespeare in the Park prompted a media furore (led by Fox News), because the presentation of Caesar bore a striking resemblance to Donald Trump.

The Public Theatre, other news media, and Shakespeare scholars (such as Stephen Greenblatt) were quick to point out that Shakespeare’s play hardly condones the assassination of Caesar and that it explores, instead, the conspirators’ flawed and extreme reactions to a democracy under threat. But audience responses cannot be contained by a careful reading of the text, and, while a production may clearly announce its relevance to contemporary politics, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific application or to control public responses to it.

Shakespeare in the Park/ ‘Julius Caesar‘, New York, 2017.

Continue reading Shakespeare at war

Cottonopolis cut down: An English atrocity and its far-reaching consequences

by Clare Pettitt, Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, Department of English

“The first action of the battle of Manchester is over”, wrote Major Dyneley of the 15th Hussars, “& has, I am happy to say ended in the complete discomfiture of the Enemy.” At 4 pm on August 16, 1819, Dyneley was already back in the Hulme Barracks with his regiment. The “Enemy” was the 60,000 to 80,000 people, most of them textile workers, who had assembled that morning in St Peter’s Field on the outskirts of Manchester city centre, to hold a peaceful demonstration to protest against the Corn Laws, and to call for parliamentary reform. The Enemy was the people. And discomfited they had surely been.

Henry Hunt, the orator who had addressed the meeting briefly before being arrested and beaten up, said that the Manchester Yeomanry, volunteers who made the first incursion into the crowd, before the Hussars, had “charged amongst the people, sabring right and left, in all directions. Sparing neither age,sex, nor rank”. It all happened very quickly. Ten minutes after the first charge, William Joliffe remembered that “the ground was quite covered with hats, shoes, musical instruments and other things”. Another eyewitness recounted that, “[s]everal mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered.

Continue reading Cottonopolis cut down: An English atrocity and its far-reaching consequences

‘Yours Truly, Lady Macbeth’

The Shakespeare Academy has been running at King’s for the past three years as a Widening Participation project. In 2017-18 we reached over 350 students, continuing to develop close partnerships with teachers and pupils at eight London state-funded secondary schools, from Key Stage 3 to GCSE. We run workshops with the students that investigate Shakespeare’s plays through seminar-style sessions, readings, and creative writing activities. Read more about the Shakespeare Academy here.

Below you can read some examples of creative writing by Years 9 and 10 students from our summer 2018 workshops. We asked them to imagine what Lady Macbeth might have written if she had left a suicide note. As you can see, the pieces are inspired by the imagery and language of the play, but re-imagined for a modern audience.

I was particularly encouraged by the ways in which students engaged with the gender politics of Macbeth. Their writings express the limitations of Lady Macbeth’s agency within early modern patriarchy with a subtlety that I found truly impressive. The entrants showcased below were chosen for their originality, insight and imaginative engagement with Shakespeare’s text.  They express the individual poetic and creative voices of the students, while maintaining close adherence to the characterisation, imagery and tone of the play.

Dr Gemma Miller, English Department and Globe Education Continue reading ‘Yours Truly, Lady Macbeth’

The soap dish homesick syndrome

by Rabia Kapoor, 2nd year English Literature and Language BA. Featured image via craftybua instagram.

I keep thinking about the soap dish. In Shoreditch, London, during this design festival that my mum took our entire parade to: people I’d met maybe twice in my life coming together for my week-long farewell non-party.

My parents had come to London with me to help me settle in before university started. It was a group of three that kept getting bigger as my parents pulled in all their friends in the vicinity to be a part of the goodbyes. Maybe it was a weird coping mechanism, I don’t know, I didn’t overthink it then. Continue reading The soap dish homesick syndrome

Put sand in the machines: Disobedient objects, protest, satire, resistance and jokes at the British Museum

by Clare PettittProfessor of Nineteenth Century Literature and Culture, Department of English

Dissent clearly varies in terms of seriousness”, says Ian Hislop, the guest curator of the British Museum’s new exhibition. It certainly does. I Object: Ian Hislop’s search for dissent throws together a peculiarly Hislopian blend of public school scatological gags and objects and images that record acts of resistance under totalitarian regimes that may have resulted in the torture and/or death of their makers. The stakes are vertiginously uneven, and as a result, the exhibition frequently runs into problems of tone.

As curator, we encounter a thoughtful and knowledgeable Hislop, respectful of other cultures and alert to injustice and cruelty in the world. But as presenter, we encounter more of a fnarr fnarr chortler: “Gillray knew what would sell a print – sex, the royal family and fashionable shoes”, he chuckles, or “Have workmen on building sites always been keen on sexual commentary?” It is an interesting problem. Amnesty International meets Finbarr Saunders meets the British Museum, and the result is often confusing, but never boring.

Continue reading Put sand in the machines: Disobedient objects, protest, satire, resistance and jokes at the British Museum

Figuring Gender Difference in Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy

by Hailey Bachrach, PhD candidate researching gender in early modern history plays in collaboration with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, @hbachrach.

If you’ve heard of director Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy, which debuted at the Donmar Warehouse from 2012 to 2016 and was released in full on BBC iPlayer on 17 June,  you’ve probably heard of its premise: it is performed by a company made up entirely of women, and framed as plays put on by a group of female prisoners. The three plays—Julius Caesar, Henry IV (the two parts combined into one), and The Tempest—are all intimately concerned with questions of masculinity and male relationships—fathers, brothers, sons—and are all notoriously light on female characters.

The prison framing device means, however, that they are not devoid of a female presence. There is no attempt at prosthetics or illusion in the production’s costumes. The actors wear prison-issue grey sweatpants and t-shirts, with accessories to designate changes of character. When Henry IV opened in 2014, Harriet Walter, who stars in all three productions, wrote that  ‘our neuter prison garb … helps the audience put aside any questions of “Are they men playing women or women playing men?”… I would argue that when the cast are all women, we can look beyond gender to our common humanity’.

Continue reading Figuring Gender Difference in Phyllida Lloyd’s Shakespeare Trilogy

Women are being excluded from the stage. It’s time for quotas.

by Julia Pascal, Research Fellow, Department of English, King’s College London

It’s a century after some British women were allowed to vote, and a statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett has been unveiled in Parliament Square, so why is women’s presence on the English stage still unequal to men’s?

In a recent survey, the Sphinx theatre found that just a fifth of English theatres were led by women, who between them control just 13% of the total Arts Council England (ACE) theatre budget.

The feminist campaigning organisation the Fawcett Society has called for quotas to get more women into key positions, after its Sex and Power Index revealed startling gender disparities in the public arena. The situation in theatre, where I have worked all my life, is a startling gauge of the marginalisation of women.

The Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators began auditing the number of females on stage in the 1980s. That we are nowhere near equality, almost 40 years later, was only too evident at the Olivier awards this year, when the prizes for best director and best new play went to men. When women do not have equal representation in theatre, it is impossible for them to have an equal chance of winning prizes. The Equal Representation for Actresses campaign group is among those pushing for change, but the male ruling elite refuses to share power.

Continue reading Women are being excluded from the stage. It’s time for quotas.

The Cosmo Davenport-Hines Poetry Prize: 2018 winners

 by Caitríona O’Reilly, lecturer in Creative Writing and Cosmo Davenport-Hines poetry prize judge

The theme for this year’s Cosmo Davenport-Hines poetry prize was ‘Reconciliation’; a prompt which promised to be both relevant and timely. Nevertheless, among the 96 entries there were – perhaps surprisingly – few on the subject of politics. Or perhaps it is not so surprising that lyric writing should focus on the preoccupations of the self?

Most entries interpreted reconciliation in the light of personal relationships, whether with significant others, siblings, or parents. Other interpretations were more abstract: politics (yes, occasionally), but also the attempt to reconcile different parts of the personality; different cultures with their conflicting claims on the self; or present realities with the imperatives of memory.

My fellow judges and I had our own small work of reconciliation to carry out, of course: deciding which among these competing and widely differing voices would eventually emerge victorious. Thankfully – and I know judges of literary prizes almost always say this, but this time it happens to be true— a harmonious consensus was achieved with minimum discussion. Many of the poems on our personal shortlists overlapped, and the standout contenders declared themselves at an early stage in the judging. As in past years, we had the luxury of awarding not just a First Prize, but also a Second, Third, and three further Commendations, which kept all of us happy.

If the successful poems have anything in common, it is the qualities shared by all good poetry: an eye at an unexpected angle to reality; a strong sense of line; a way with metaphor; a convincing and consistent tone carrying through the poem from beginning to end; and most importantly, that quickening in language that is unmistakeable.

Continue reading The Cosmo Davenport-Hines Poetry Prize: 2018 winners