Theatre goes back to the future

Bury St Edmunds has unveiled a new festival to celebrate its Georgian heritage.

Andrew Clarke

Bury St Edmunds has unveiled a new festival to celebrate its Georgian heritage. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Helga Brandt from the Theatre Royal about the town's Georgian Gem.

History and contemporary arts are not natural bed-fellows but Bury St Edmunds is using both to bookend Suffolk's festival season.

While May sees the town celebrating wide-ranging contemporary culture with the annual Bury Festival, September sees the first annual Georgian Gem festival which pays homage to Bury's Georgian past.

The Theatre Royal, which has just undergone a £5.3 million restoration to return it to its Georgian splendour, is the cornerstone of this autumn celebration.

The Theatre Royal is driving the festival, which has been dubbed Georgian Gem, with two playful Georgian comedies written by Suffolk-born playwright Elizabeth Inchbald and a host of audience activities including a Jane Austen inspired dance day.

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The architect of the event, which runs until September 21, is the Theatre Royal's Helga Brandt. She said: “It is something we have planned deliberately. Our heritage programme is very important for tourists as well as our regular theatre audience, so we thought that the late summer would be a good period to launch a new festival celebrating both our theatre and the town's Georgian heritage.”

She said that the theatre was unique in that it balanced both a heritage agenda and a contemporary play programme. “It is important for us that the theatre is seen to cover a wide-ranging programme. We are extremely proud of our heritage work and we would love for it to expand our audience but we are also very conscious that we are a working contemporary theatre and we don't want to be seen as somewhere that only does Georgian drama.”

She said that the past informs the present so the Georgian feel percolates through everything they do. “We have brought the building back to its Regency origins so that has an impact on everything we put on the stage because it is very beautiful. We can put out a portable forestage, which if we used it for contemporary dance, for example, would have a huge impact on the way that the performance was viewed because it would bring the performers much closer to the audience. It changes the dynamics of the audience's experience.”

She said they saw their heritage productions as an addition to their main programme which runs throughout the year. “It is about having a versatile programme which can attract a wide ranging audience. For example in our Revisit week we had lots of morning events which attracted families who wanted an activity-based event finding about their history or going on day trips and in the afternoons we staged Georgian experiences.

“Georgian Gem is very much about collaborative events through an array of different organisations which are re-living the Georgian heritage of Bury St Edmunds which is part of a bigger project called Populating The Past. It's about getting all the different organisations from Bury St Edmunds together because there is a rich wealth of Georgian heritage here and it's not just the theatre. You only have to walk through the town to be impressed at the Athenaeum, the Angel Hotel and the facades of the town houses.”

The idea behind Georgian Gem is that it puts the theatre at the heart of a wider community. When the theatre opened in October 1819 it formed an integral part of Bury's social scene. It was part of a wider community - part of a valuable, cultural meeting place that catered for all classes and types of people.

“The idea behind Georgian Gem, when it was born last year, was how can we integrate this restored building into the town. For many Bury is better known for its medieval history, Magna Carta and the old abbey but we felt it was equally important and beautiful for its Georgian history.

“The theatre wasn't built in a vacuum it was and remains connected with the community. William Wilkins, the architect was not only a great neo-classic architect and a lover of theatre, but he spent a lot of time thinking about the audience he was designing it for. He gave great thought about who would be using the theatre, what they needed and how the theatre could cater for them. It was built very much in context of the society it served.”

She said that part of their aim now was to tell the story of the theatre in context of the development of Bury St Edmunds. Apart from the social history of the theatre she said that the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, was a work of theatrical art in its own right. From a design and practical point of view it was a lasting tribute to the talents of William Wilkins.

“The acoustics are superb and actor and audiences enjoy a special relationship when playing in the theatre. Actors love working here. It is a great space. With the forestage in place it is a great experience to be right out there, not quite surrounded by the audience but the first boxes go round them and it gives that appearance. It gives the performance a lot more intimacy.”

She said dialogue can genuinely be delivered in a conspiratorial fashion which wouldn't be possible if the actors were set back behind the proscenium arch. The history of the theatre then informs the productions which are staged there - particularly the Restoring The Repertoire productions which seek to bring forgotten Regency plays back before modern audiences.

“Suddenly it isn't an old play being performed because now audiences know the background to the theatre of the times and the world in which these plays existed. They are seeing them in context and know a little about the personalities involved and the society they were commenting upon.”

They are delighted that the life and works of Jane Austen are very much back in vogue with the general public. Movie and television adaptations of her life and works are guaranteed huge ratings and this is reflected in theatre audiences as well. “We are always happy to talk about the links between Elizabeth Inchbald, who wrote our autumn Regency plays Wives As They Were and Animal Magnetism, and Jane Austen. Jane was influenced was Elizabeth Inchbald who was a highly regarded playwright at the time and is mentioned in Austen's novel Mansfield Park.

“Elizabeth Inchbald was a very important figure and she would have interacted with the leading figures of the day. She wrote popular and provocative plays which espoused greater rights and freedom for women. She wrote stories about strong women, independent minded women in age when women were expected to stay at home and be the dutiful wife. She wrote stinging commentaries on Georgian society and would have been a highly controversial and much talked about figure.”

She said that in the long-term what the theatre wanted to do was not only restore the repertoire of the period and rediscover the history of the Theatre Royal but also attract a wider audience of international tourists. Georgian Gem fills the first two weeks of September and dovetails into the Jane Austen Festival in Bath which attracts a wide-ranging group of knowledgeable Austen lovers from around the world.

The Theatre Royal is hoping that many of those attending the festival, particularly from the USA and Europe, will also make their way to Bury St Edmunds to sample the history, architecture and theatre of Suffolk's own Georgian town.

“It's about bringing to life the context of Georgian society. The Georgians were a very hedonistic society. They loved to have fun, they enjoyed their food, they enjoyed their drink, their entertainment, they enjoyed going out, parties and balls, staying out late.

The play Wives As They Were really highlights this as the two female protagonists in the play are both party girls who are in lots of trouble because of their wild and raucous ways. It talks about the excesses of the society but also puts it in a human context. It's a really funny play with plenty of really farcical comedy but also has some sharp, witty one-liners and a strong emotional theme about relationships running through it. It's a beautifully crafted piece.”

Helga said that this emphasis on both history and theatre was highlighted in a new book, By Particular Desire by Carl Miller, that the theatre had commissioned to tell the story not only of the restoration but of the history of the theatre and Georgian drama in general. Written by former writer-in-residence Carl Miller, it sets the theatre in context to the town and the times in which it was built.

The book is also lavishly illustrated with drawings and playbills from the theatre in its Georgian heyday as well stunning photographs of the restored theatre as it is today.

“It contextualises the Theatre Royal in society of the day. It talks about what type of theatre went before - what plays were performed here in medieval times, why was the theatre built, what did the people come to see?

“Carl summons up the atmosphere of being at the theatre. What it was like to be seated in various different parts of the auditorium. What did it smell like? The odour of the people, the oil from the lamps. What was it like to be an actor of the day. What were conditions like backstage? If you were a female player were you considered to be no better than a prostitute? It covers a lot of ground.”

Helga said that it was great for the town and the area that Bury now played host to two major festivals bringing a lot of attention to the area.

“We are very happy about the fact that we now have two major festivals in the town - one in the first half of the year and now one in the second. Both festivals are very complementary to one another. There are walks and various activities which are given much more impact when they are gathered together in a two week festival rather than being dotted about the year.”

They were also working closely with the Bury Record Office in making digital copies of all the playbills, illustrations and programmes so that they could be made available to schools and colleges as educational resources.

Wives As They Were and Maids As They Are is playing in repertoire with Animal Magnetism until September 20. Both plays are by Elizabeth Inchbald, who was born just outside Bury St Edmunds in Stanningfield. A talk on her life by Peter Hepple is being held at Bury Record Office at 10.30am.

A one day course Dancing Like Jane Austen is being held at The Guildhall, Bury St Edmunds today, while at Bury library Not Just Jane looks at women writers in Georgian England.

There is also a guided walk today entitled Ladies and Gentlemen of the Georgian Town while Ickworth House is staging a Georgian Weekend with authentic costumes on display, family activities and an appearance by 95th Rifle Regiment. On Monday a touring production of An Evening with Elizabeth Inchbald arrives at Stanningfield Village Hall and on Sunday September 21 Ickworth House is staging a Family Fun day with Georgian games.

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