Substance & Shadow Theatre Company “One for Sorrow” Tuckers Hall Tuesday 13 November
For a bride to die on her wedding day is generally considered the archetype of tragedy. The case of Primula Rollo springs to mind. Partying at Tyrone Power‘s mansion after her marriage to David Niven, she took a wrong turn during a game of hide and seek and fell to her death on the basement stairs, thinking she was jumping into a closet.
In this sorry tale, Martha Skibbow, having secured the hand of the successful wool-merchant Thomas Flay, disappears mysteriously during a similar party game. However, in this case things may not be what they seem. The family she is marrying into is no stranger to sudden death. Thomas’ first wife, Elspeth, died carrying their first child. Throughout the play are references to Elspeth’s lifeless body floating in the River Exe like the doomed fiancée of Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet, as immortalised by Sir John Everett Millais in 1852.
This story seems to be set at about the same time as Millais created his painful image of Ophelia. The site-specific setting of Tucker‘s Hall is not coincidental. Woollen cloth manufacture was a major industry in Exeter until the nineteenth century, when industrial innovations systematically adopted in northern England supplanted the then redundant cottage industry techniques which had made the Exeter traders wealthy.
Tucker’s Hall, unobtrusively situated half-way down Exeter’s Fore Street, is the home of the Incorporation of Weavers, Fullers, & Shearmen. These three professions execute just a fraction of the processes involved in converting the fleece of a sheep into saleable woollen cloth. Fullers and Tuckers are synonymous. Pounding the woven cloth in human urine and then Oxford clay, either by hand (more precisely, by foot) or using water powered wooden hammers.
Very fortunately, the building housing the original Incorporation survived the infamous Baedeker Raids by the Luftwaffe which destroyed so many other historic buildings in Exeter. For anyone not familiar with Tucker’s Hall, there is a wealth of historical information and fascinating artifacts to discover there. The characters of Thomas and Ignatius Flay (Richard Pulman and Midge Mullin) are the perfect embodiment of the culture and attitudes of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Exeter middle class who were dependent on the then rapidly declining wool industry.
Add into the mix the popular mythology of the time, and human frailty and susceptibility to delusion and fear, and an already traumatic tragedy becomes an insurmountable edifice of human grief and sadness. This play very accurately recounts the delusional world of the comfortable middle class of the pre-Victorian era. The accents are perfect. (Midge Mullin, as always, has mastered yet another completely new voice.) Nathan Simpson provides detailed narration, while also portraying the caring burgess Jeremiah Nethercott, a skillful combination which often involves very nimble transformations.
Fern Stone, as Martha Skibbow the daughter of a housemaid who has somehow been chosen by the wealthy Thomas as his second wife, seems at first to be just a cameo. However, later in the production she recreates her harrowing experience as youthful bride to an ageing heir. Her performance is very moving – and very relevant to the wool industry-based theme.
Quite apart from the fascinating historical artifacts and information presented throughout the Hall itself, Substance and Shadow Theatre Company’s production gives a vivid insight into life in historical Exeter, of which many residents may be totally unaware. The play continues twice nightly for two more nights (Wednesday 14th November, and Thursday 15th November) and will be presented again at the even more historically significant St Nicholas Priory (a place of Christian worship and hospital since shortly after the Norman Conquest).
“Chapeau!” to Director Rosie Mullin, and the whole Substance & Shadow team for another riveting and informative theatrical production. Long may this fabulous collaboration continue!