EDITH, ELIZABETH AND I, written and presented by Jules Craig, Marlborough Theatre, Brighton, Monday 7th Nov. 8pm
The daisy-chain of links between the three characters in this one woman play are more physical and external, such as a resemblance in height and profile (facial profile that is) between the actor, ‘I’, and Edith Sitwell and a shared birth date for Edith and Elizabeth the First, the former also having written a biography of the latter (though there was a confluence of stature in this case as well), rather than thematic or consanguine (I’ve always wanted to use that word). Unlike Woolf’s Orlando, who is the same person despite spanning centuries, effectively generations concertina-ed, Edith, Elizabeth and ‘I’ aren’t related by blood.
For Edith and Elizabeth their residues are in their public personas. The private life of a Tudor Queen is a difficult thing to contemplate, given the immense difference from our own time and station, and an eccentric, bohemian aristocrat, tangentially associated with the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, is similarly mysterious, taking into account the kind of self-mythologising in which she and her two brothers indulged.
Theirs was a family firm, literary art produced as from a factory before Andy Warhol was even thought of. They did some good for other artists too, it must be acknowledged. Edith Sitwell was the first publisher of Wilfred Owen and they generously supported the composer, William Walton ‘till he found his feet, inspiring him to produce music for Edith’s poem cycle, Facade, the music finding another life as the score for an Ashton ballet, still performed, and her brother, Osbert put together a libretto for him using excerpts from the Bible for Belshazzar’s Feast, which is always worth reviving.
Edith’s courage and determination in creating a profile for herself, more doyen of Vanity Fair and Vogue than habitué of the Perion spring (an obscure Greek reference to the Muses of poetry and the arts, don’t worry about it, I just put it in for fun) must be applauded, especially as she seems to have had a very bloody childhood, involving brutal parents and metal braces to correct curvatures etc. She moved out of the (unheated) family pile and into a flat in London with her Nanny, in revenge.
Elizabeth the First had a public profile inflicted on her; Edith invented her own public profile; ‘I’ has a limited public profile and thus concentrates on her private life, her acting, her parents and friends, her job, her auditions, but doesn’t really make a case for how her profile, both physical and metaphorical, illuminates those other more high profile personages, or vice versa. Edith is probably most interesting as someone who was once famous, but is now more or less forgotten. How does that misfortune play out? What would she say if she knew?
Elizabeth the First, when she does make an appearance in the play, is a kind of mad presence, who ‘I’ has to push into a large chest which she sits on until the Queen recedes. Edith is a more sympathetic, if broadly imperious soul, acting in loco parentis to ‘I’ and not at all grateful for being resuscitated.
There’s a good entertainment hiding in here somewhere, and I think it would have a lot to do with being a lot less deferential, a lot more sardonic, making much more of the enormous contrasts between the three characters, taking it all to the kind of extremes to which Edith, and I suspect, Elizabeth, were given. The Queen could do with her ribs being tickled and Edith can probably take anything you can throw at her.
Edith Sitwell is also emblematic, and a pioneer, of that phenomenon now know as ‘famous for being famous’. For this alone she is worth the resurrection and examination.