A STORY THAT ENRICHES US ALL
Written and Performed by Anne Chamberlain
Directed by KC Kelly
Produced by Ms Chamberlain Presents
at Hannah Playhouse (previously Downstage), Wellington
From 22 May 2014 to 24 May 2014
[1hr 10mins (no interval)]
Reviewed by John Smythe, 23 May 2014
It is a measure of our phallocentric culture and the history its guardians have chosen to promote that most of us have never heard of Eglantyne Jebb: the astonishingly determined social activist, researcher and reformer whose lasting legacies are the worldwide Save the Children organisation and The Declaration of the Rights of the Child. If she'd been a man she'd have been knighted then made a peer of the realm – or maybe not, given her humanity was apolitical and inclusive of all nationalities.
Appalled at the post war famine in Europe, in 1919 she campaigned to “end the blockade and feed the children!”, was arrested in Trafalgar Square for distributing unauthorised pamphlets, established the Fight the Famine Council with her sister Dorothy and founded the Save the Children Fund, which she launched at the Royal Albert Hall. The following year they founded the International Save The Children foundation in Geneva.
This is where the play starts. Writer, sole performer and producer of Eglantyne, Anne Chamberlain (who once worked as a communications adviser for Save the Children), arrives in full flight on the activist trail and quickly enrols us in the cause despite the resistance of those opposed to caring about the starving children of ‘the enemy'. Towards the end of the 80-minute play she quotes George Bernard Shaw: “I have no enemies under the age of seven.”
But this is more than agitprop for a cause that remains just as important today, be it through man's inhumanity to man or natural disasters. Ms Chamberlain steps out of her deftly-drawn roles, back into herself, to draw parallels between her own life and Eglantyne's, and to pose the enduring questions: What made Eglantyne care? What makes us care?
In search of the answers she takes us back to the Shropshire childhood enjoyed by the Jebb children, Eglantyne's time as Oxford University, her failed attempt to be a teacher, her experiences of falling in love and heartbreak. It is in the process of returning to her substantive contribution to the world, that Chamberlain links elements of Eglantyne's personal life to her own life experiences.
Of course we have to wonder whether, in those times, Eglantyne would have achieved all that if she had become a wife and mother to her very own children. Or was it that her essential far-reaching humanity was inevitably incompatible with the role marriage and motherhood would have confined her to? Eglantyne, by the way – a name passed down through the family – is a type of prickly briar rose.
Chamberlain ensures we empathise as strongly as she does with Eglantyne's profound experiences of familial and romantic love, and so feel with her the losses she has to endure. And given empathy has always had currency as a means of exchange in theatre, find myself wondering whether we really need the threads of Chamberlain's personal life to be woven into this story. But the story, as told, does require an external narrative voice, so once introduced it does seem valid to give it a life of its own.
Sometimes it feels as if, having done all her research, Chamberlain was loath to leave anything out. But every aspect of her family, public and private lives, and all the references to the better-known names that were her contemporaries, undoubtedly enrich the story and ensure she is not over-idealised by being stripped of human foibles and vulnerability.
Directed with elegant simplicity by KC Kelly, the complexities of Eglantyne flow fluently to immerse us in a comprehensive awareness of an extraordinary life from childhood right through to the mountain-top epiphany which brought about The Declaration of the Rights of the Child (also known as the Declaration of Geneva).
I do find it disconcerting that the performer's eye-line is most often above and beyond the audience. That works early on to suggest the Royal Albert Hall but the rest of the time genuine eye-contact with her actual audience would seem more appropriate. Mind you, on this opening night the intrusion of a live band playing outside, in Courtenay Place (will The Hannah Playhouse ever be soundproofed?) adds a most unwelcome challenge to performer and audience alike. In the face of this, Anne Chamberlain must be congratulated for not missing a beat in a sustained presentation that demands high levels of skill and dedication; qualities which parallel those of Eglantyne Jebb.
Eglantyne is only on for two more nights in Wellington. It reveals a life that deserves to be known and tells a story that enriches us all.
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Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Med (The Dominion Post);