Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing: Newcastle’s Live Theatre (12 November 2016)
A few of us from the Martineau Society went to the opening – indeed ‘world premiere’, this weekend, of a tremendous production entitled Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing at Live Theatre, Newcastle (just near the Millennium Bridge). Written by Shelagh Stephenson who comes from the North East although she’s now based in London, it is set in Harriet Martineau’s rooms in Tynemouth in 1844, where she is recovering from a long-term illness.
It is either a serious play with some comic interventions or a comedy with serious intentions, but whichever way around, it’s brilliant – funny, informative, well-acted, and with a definite feel-good element. It portrays Harriet as I would recognise her – with all her passion and certainty – yet also with a satirical and comic edge. I’ve always felt that she must have been more sympathetic and humorous than many of her critics and some of her ‘friends’ have portrayed her, and this certainly seems to be the viewpoint of the playwright.
I do suggest that anyone who is able to, goes to see the Newcastle production. It’s only on this month (November 2016) and for a couple of days in early December.
For further details of the play and how to book, please go to: http://www.live.org.uk/whats-on-book/harriet-martineau-dreams-of-dancing.
We travelled 400 miles to the performance. We didn’t know what to expect. There are few, if any, plays that feature the ideas of Harriet Martineau. The house was full for the opening performance ; and included members of the Society, the Martineau family and, not least, the owner of the Martineau Guest House in Tynemouth. We were not disappointed. ‘Harriet Martineau’s Dreams of Dancing’ was a resounding success. It focuses on a period of time when, in Tynemouth, Harriet took to her bed and adopted a housebound life style – an opportunity that the author, Shelagh Stevenson, exploits to the full. The result is a witty and sharp narrative building on the comedic and satirical possibilities of the 1840s – a time when political reform, phrenology, mesmerism and slavery figured in the circulation of ideas. Our journey was not wasted – a view generally expressed by the members of the audience who stayed on to discuss the play with the author. In short, another Martineau highlight in 2016.
I must say I never thought the day would come when someone would write a play about Harriet Martineau, or that when they did it would be about her friendship with a widowed artist whose husband was killed when a pig fell on him from an upstairs window. This summary makes Shelagh Stephenson’s play Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing sound more farcical than it was. In reality it reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s dialogues, or of Tom Stoppard’s in Arcadia, which also plays games with historical characters. In spite of the pig, Harriet Martineau was still recognizably there, in her Tynemouth sickroom, with the chaise-langue, and the telescope pointing towards the ruined abbey. Her brother-in-law, Thomas Greenhow, kept stepping in to feel her pulse, and her maid, Jane Arrowsmith, aspired to do something more with her life than bring the tea in and out. As for Martineau herself, played by Lizzy McInnerny, she retained her dignity and strong-mindedness, as she rejected her doctor’s attempts to make her walk and go outside. She introduces herself as a writer , who writes to ‘change the world,’ and referencing her abolitionist stance, works with Impie (the widowed artist) to liberate the mixed-race character, Beulah Grey from her disciplinarian protector. The play was full of surprises, ranging from Beulah’s extraordinary transformation from a silent bystander dressed like a wedding cake, to a boyish escapee in jumper and trousers. Harriet, however, remained constant: determined to be ill and strong-minded, only wavering towards the end in favour of trying mesmerism…and we know what happened after that.
After the performance we enjoyed a question and answer session with the author, who was, I think, fairly dumbfounded to find so many members of the Martineau Society present (a hint of ‘Is there one?’ Whatever next? from the audience’s response to Gaby’s mention to the Society). We were delighted to find some Martineau family members there, including James and Meg, whom we met at the summer conference. James graciously thanked Shelagh Stephenson for her play, triggering another visible sigh of relief that she hadn’t offended the family.
By a strange coincidence I was at another Martineau performance the evening before by the leading piano accompanist Malcolm Martineau in concert with the soprano Sarah Fox at Hull University’s newly-refurbished Middleton Hall. Accompanists are usually overshadowed by the soloist, but Malcolm unexpectedly chipped in with lines from the final piece, Cole Porter’s ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare,’ which certainly endeared him to the audience. Altogether this was a weekend of Martineau performances full of humour and vitality – in each case presented to an enthusiastic public keen to know more.
My introduction to the Martineau Society was at the 2011 conference when it was held in Tynemouth. We booked into the Harriet Martineau Guest House there for the duration of the conference and were delighted to be given a room occupied by Harriet during her extended convalescence in the town. It was very comfortable and we were allowed to show it off to the other conference-goers – four at a time up the narrow staircase!
How delightful then to discover that ‘Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing’ is set in that same guest house room, towards the end of the five years she spent in Tynemouth. The storyline is entertaining and allows the views expressed in her writing and campaigning on slavery and women to feature in the exchanges between Lizzie McInnerny, playing Harriet, and the five others in the cast. Also featured is a soundtrack to the play by local folk band The Unthanks. Their music is subtly in the background throughout and very much in the foreground for some nicely choreographed dream dance sequences in which all the cast members take part. Altogether entertaining!