Edith - In the Beginning, my second play as a new writer, was originally a site-specific, outdoor commission by STUFF of DREAMS theatre company and the National Trust, to commemorate eighty years since the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Suffolk. Widowed landowner Edith Pretty subsequently donated the treasure find to the nation. It remains one of the most valuable and culturally significant discoveries of all times, providing archaeological evidence which changed our understanding of early seventh century English history.
At the heart of the play, set in class-rigid 1930s England, is a very human story about the unusual friendship between self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown and his employer Edith, a remarkable, educated woman in her own right, who served with the Red Cross in WW1 and became a first-time mother at 47.
As Lockdown began, I adapted the script to accommodate an indoor setting – a far cry from the gloriously hot August weekend in 2019, set on the porch of Tranmer House, in Suffolk overlooking the original burial mounds – ever mindful of the restrictions of cast members rehearsing online within the confines of their own homes. The focus moved from visually elaborate and atmospheric spectacle to a more intimate ‘up-close-and personal’ perspective which really brings the dialogue, poetry and song alive. I am used to being closely involved in the rehearsal process, so working with Anne-marie (Director) and our delightful company of actors, sound, lighting and editing team became a crucial aspect of developing the production collaboratively.
I’m pleasantly surprised how relatively easy it was for us to change our thinking and adapt to weekly rehearsals online in people’s homes, closely replicating the schedule which would normally have taken place in the theatre. There were times when we had to contend with failing technology (not to mention head colds, DIY props, cumbersome furniture and ‘green screens’!), but one advantage was me being able to contribute from Jersey and Lucy Hayton from London, which otherwise could not have happened. Both of us were able to renew our contact with the Criterion and even our Covid-shielding local compatriots could also join us.
I’m so proud to share the success of this new venture, to renew contact with the Criterion where I ‘cut my teeth’ in all things theatrical during my undergrad days at Warwick university. Thankyou for your patience, your wonderful sense of humour, for your willingness to experiment, for daring to take a risk, determined that we would find a way to continue our mutual love of theatre and the stage. Heartfelt thanks for making this happen and for giving Edith another life despite Covid.
Reflections from Lucy Hayton (Edith Pretty)
Performing a play online in the midst of a global pandemic is rather odd. You have sole responsibility for your hair and make-up (terrifying). You have to prepare all your props, set up the tech and turn over your tiny flat into a make-shift studio. There is no audience, no bar, no opening night and no set strike. Some things however, do remain the same. The endless line learning, the panic, the fleeting regret and the laughter. Whilst I would always prefer the ‘in-real-life’ experience of making a play, for me this was a real blessing in dark times.
It demonstrated the ingenuity and determination of a creative community and reassured me that the impulse to make and experience live theatre, is too strong to quietly fade away.
My one piece of advice for those of you considering undertaking a zoom play? Please, for the love of god, make sure you press record!
Watch a timelapse clip of Lucy recording a scene from the play in August here
Reflections from Keith Railton (Basil Brown)
I’ve been involved in theatre productions for over sixty years but nothing that I had done before prepared me for the ‘Edith Experience’. Never before have I had to create the set in my own front bedroom, rig up a camera, lighting and sound, have costume and props left at my front door and work closely with an actor who was sitting nearly 100 miles away. But I stumbled through, experiencing enjoyment, fulfilment, and stress along the way and, when we’d finished, I discovered I’d actually learnt a lot of new skills.
Throughout the rollercoaster journey my hand was held by a talented cast, writer, director, and a very supportive crew. It was certainly an experience I’ll never forget. I’ve no idea what the end product will be like, but at least we gave it a go. I hope that our audiences will enjoy it. And as for me – well, who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Reflections from Helen Withers (Queen Redwaeld)
I thoroughly enjoyed the Criterion Read of “Edith in the Beginning” and was delighted when I was asked to play the Anglo Saxon Queen. It is a beautifully written scene which allows rapport and ultimately affection between two women who were separated by hundreds of years yet united in their loss. It was so enjoyable to work, albeit at a distance, with Lucy while being supported by Anne-marie and Karen. I did learn new skills.
With Steve Brown’s guidance I was able to erect a screen and lights into my front room to create a studio (much to the amusement of my neighbours who did wonder what I was up to!) and was grateful to the various chauffeurs who transported the equipment between Keith and myself as we were both in Lockdown. Special thanks to the ever wonderful Pam for providing me with a Queenly costume and to Gareth for his reassurance when I expressed concern about singing the solo lament “It’s alright, Mum” he said, “I can always use Pitch Correction!”.
Reflections from the Audience
We watched Edith last night. When we lived in Coventry we used to come along to the Criterion, and were always impressed by the sheer professionalism of the productions. You may be in the 'am-dram' category, but you always punch well above your weight. Edith was no exception. In a Covid-19 world, live theatre will have an even more precarious future. What you have done with this production shows a way forward. I've watched some 'socially distanced' on-line productions (notably the Persians, from Epidavros) and also some improv and some 'live' concerts. Edith was quite innovative and shows what can be done on what I imagine was quite a small budget. Obviously there were technical hurdles, but on the whole it was remarkably well done. The position of the 'heads' , the focus, did move from scene to scene, especially noticeable when two screens were side by side. Hard to adjust, but a little disconcerting. The green screen worked well, with hardly any 'artefacts', except in the scene with Basil and his seed trays. I don't know whether this was to do with our set-up (mirroring to our tv from my iPhone), or was intrinsic. The use of archive photographs was good (was the rider's head deliberately out of frame?) and following so soon after Remembrance Day added a poignancy. And it's an interesting story which spurs me to visit Suffolk sometime. Well done. Good to see that you are rising to the challenge and producing excellent work (as usual!).
Congratulations are in order - to the playwright and to the whole team! I really enjoyed this production. The limitations of lockdown preparation and presentation were turned into positive advantages, notably of course the flashbacks to WWI. I shall no longer see the Sutton Hoo treasure as a set of artefacts and want to find out more about Edith.
I enjoyed this performance and found it to be very atmospheric and moving. This was quite a feat as I was watching on my Iphone. Having visited Sutton Hoo last year, the production was indeed more interesting, because of having visited the house and the barrows first hand. Thank you for an enjoyable experience, and a remarkable achievement, given the current constraints.