Theatre review: 'William Wordsworth', by Nicholas Pierpan

By Katherine Robson
As a Collections Trainee at the Wordsworth Trust, my role involves answering public enquiries about our collection. Recently, I was sent some interesting questions from actress, Emma Pallant. To prepare for her role as Dorothy Wordsworth in an upcoming play about William Wordsworth, Emma wanted to know more about Dorothy’s character and how she moved around the house. I enjoyed reading Dorothy and William’s letters, Dorothy’s Grasmere Journal and secondary sources to find the answers that Emma needed.
I must admit, I am always a little sceptical of historical films, TV series and plays, perhaps because of my training as a historian. For me, accuracy is paramount in these productions to give the audience the best possible understanding of who a person in the past was; his/her attitudes, concerns and motivations. So you can imagine that I was pleased to receive Emma’s email. It made me hopeful that this new play would present the life of an iconic poet as accurately as historical sources allow.
I was not disappointed. William Wordsworth is not without dramatic license but there have been great attempts to make the play accurate. Its writer, Nicholas Pierpan, chose William Wordsworth as the subject for his PhD. His supervisor was Professor Stephen Gill, a leading Wordsworthian scholar, and former Wordsworth Trust trustee, who came to show the cast some of William’s manuscripts. A voice teacher also helped the cast to perfect their Cumbrian accents, with the help of interviews of local people.
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Set in 1812, William Wordsworth follows William, played by John Sackville, and his family in a particularly challenging year of their lives. It begins with William looking pensively at the Lake District landscape. But the bubble bursts and we are transported to the Grasmere Rectory , which Wordsworth was then renting, where Dorothy runs around cleaning, tries to keep William and Mary’s children under control and pleads with William to publish some poems so that they can get a new chimney.
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The key strength of the play is that it allows the audience to decide whether William was a great poet or more interested in upholding his literary reputation than providing for his family. I thought that my mind was made up at the beginning. William comes across as ‘holier-than-thou’ as he tries to persuade fellow poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, played by Daniel Abelson, to return to the Lakes to care for his family.
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As Coleridge tells William, ‘you live wholly among devotees – having every minutest thing, almost his very eating and drinking, done for him by his sisters or his wife’. Yet the next scene is a party of London’s elite, where William defends his poems, only to be mocked by the guests. I felt sorry for him when, as he and Coleridge leave, a guest says, ‘[t]here goes one seriously demented idiot, alongside a washed-up Mr Coleridge’. I still cannot decide whether I like William!
I was also impressed by the attempts to give a voice to the women in William’s life, particularly Dorothy and her sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson, played by Amiera Darwish. They are portrayed as strong-minded, not subservient housekeepers. But I would like to have seen more evidence of Dorothy’s many skills aside from her domestic work, such as her talents as a writer. During the play, Dorothy says, ‘I just want a chimney, William’, but was this really the height of her ambitions?
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Pierpan strikes the right balance between poignancy and humour. In a play such as this, it would be easy to get bogged down in the tragedy that the Wordsworths faced. Indeed, there is no shortage of sadness in the play. One moment, William is blissfully playing with his son, Thomas (the role is being shared by three actors). The next, William is standing over the graves of Thomas and his sister, Catherine. Yet these scenes are interspersed with light-hearted moments.
I was impressed by the creative design of the play as much as the story being told. In theatres today, hi-tech equipment is used to create seamless transitions between scenes. There is none of this in William Wordsworth. Instead, beautiful string music plays in the background whilst the cast sway to and fro to put furniture and movable walls in their rightful places for the next scene. It adds to the authenticity of the play; the audience is kept within 1812, not transported back to 2017 for a couple of minutes whilst the backstage team do scene changes. The subtle shifts in lighting also effectively capture the many ups and downs in William’s life.
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I was left confused about a couple of things. Firstly, the play is set in the middle of William’s life, before which many key events had occurred, such as the tragic death of his brother, John, in 1805. Yet unless the audience has a prior understanding of the famous poet, I fear that they will sometimes be confused about what they are seeing on stage. Background information about William’s earlier life at the beginning of the play could resolve this issue.
Secondly, where is Mary Wordsworth? The reason for her absence is not made clear to the audience. Also, only one of William’s five children appears in the play. This and Mary’s absence made it difficult for me to imagine how the Wordsworth household fitted together and how challenging it was to live in the cramped rectory. But these minor issues did not spoil my enjoyment of William Wordsworth.
I and fellow trainees got the chance to meet the cast after the play. It was a pleasure to talk to Emma about how she developed Dorothy’s character. Despite the stress of opening night, the cast took the time to ask about our work at the Trust and to share some behind-the-scenes secrets!
William Wordsworth is a beautifully-crafted play which sheds light on a lesser-known story of William’s life when he struggled to balance his poetic ambitions with his family responsibilities. It is an effective reminder that success did not come easily to many of our revered literary figures and that they were not flawless; they were only human, just like us.
William Wordsworth is showing at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, until Saturday 22 April 2017.
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Katherine Robson is a Collections Trainee at the Wordsworth Trust. Katherine helps to record and care for the Trust’s collection, develop Katherine Robsonexhibitions and works with researchers. She also delivers guided tours of Dove Cottage, welcomes visitors to the Wordsworth Museum and sells tickets and merchandise in the Trust’s shop. Her traineeship is funded by Arts Council England.

‘Homes at Grasmere’: The inspiration behind a new play about William Wordsworth

by David Ward

If you are going to stage a play about Wordsworth, it has to be in the Lake District. And if you are going to stage it in the Lake District, it has to be at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick which is roughly half way between Cockermouth, where Wordsworth was born, and Grasmere where, if you bend the rules to include Rydal, he lived for more than 50 years.

Which is a rambling way of explaining that Theatre by the Lake will present the world première of William Wordsworth by Nicholas Pierpan in a co-production with English Touring Theatre from 1 April to 22 April.
The play is set in 1812, not a happy year for the poet but it would give away too much of the plot away to say why. But it won’t spoil things too much to say that he was hard up that year.  With little cash coming in, his desire to be free to write, but not sell, his poetry is at odds with his need to provide for his extended family.  Part of my job at Theatre by the Lake is to write programme notes. After some time spent footling around and staring into space (I’m glad to see, Alan Bennett does quite a bit of staring too), I chanced upon a reference to Allan Bank, where the Wordsworths lived from 1808 to 1810. Allan Bank? I thought. Where’s that? I’d never heard of the house; didn’t know the National Trust owned it; didn’t know about the fire that gutted it in 2011. Please excuse my ignorance.
Separate footling led me to Dorothy’s letters, which again I didn’t know, although I know and love the journals, and which I found in the New York Public Library; not that I was in New York, though I once sat in Bryant Park above the library’s stacks to watch an open-air showing of High Noon.
The library has very helpfully digitised the two volumes of Wordsworth family letters published in 1907 and they gave many hours of happy serendipity. When I started to concentrate on the task in hand, I found that Dorothy had written often about her homes and I needed to look no further for a programme note.
William and Dorothy moved into Dove Cottage in Grasmere late in 1799 and ten months later Dorothy told her friend Jane Marshall it was now “neat and comfortable” though very small. She also refers to “a small low unceiled room which I have papered with newspapers”, a space that fascinates anyone who squeezes into it today.


Conservation work on the ‘newspaper room’

Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson in 1802 and three of their five children, John, Dora and Thomas (who appears in Nicholas Pierpan’s play) were born in Dove Cottage. Mary’s sister Sara also lived with the family and the writer Thomas de Quincy became a permanent guest; the small 17th century home eventually became too crowded for comfort.
So off they went in 1808 to Allan Bank, which William had described as “a temple of abomination” when it was being built on a fellside outside Grasmere. Late that year, Dorothy told Catherine Clarkson that the house, with smoky chimneys and wet cellars, was giving them “grievous troubles”. It was apparently overrun by builders trying to sort out “these evils”.

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

Allan Bank, sketched by Sarah Hutchinson in 1857

“This house is at present literally not habitable,” she complained. “You can have no idea of the inconvenience we have suffered. There was one stormy day in which we could have no fire but in my brother’s study, and that chimney smoked so much that we were obliged to go to bed.”
How familiar, how ordinary, this sounds; my heart went out to Dorothy. I wanted to tell her that as I writing about her troubles, I was confronting my own: a plumber who came to inspect a leak in our bathroom told me the only, and rather drastic, way to get at the problem was to cut a hole in my kitchen ceiling.
In 1810, the Wordsworths (William and Mary now had two more children) decided to move to the Old Rectory in Grasmere, where William Wordsworth is set. But the house needed a lot of work and in a letter to Mrs Clarkson Dorothy was sceptical about her brother’s skills as a project manager.

“William has undertaken the whole charge of getting the business done, and you know how unfit he is for any task of this kind. Mary and I are, however, determined not to enter upon it till it is finished completely; for we were thoroughly sickened of workmen when we first came hither.”

At once I bonded with William; I have a long history of being baffled by builders who instantly recognise my incompetence.
The family did not stop long at the Old Rectory and were on the move again in 1813, this time to Rydal Mount a couple of miles down the road to Ambleside. Dorothy told Mrs Clarkson it was “a paradise” and in another letter explained that she had been shopping. Like many of us, she tries to justify a bit of extravagance:

“Now I must tell you of our grandeur. We are going to have a Turkey carpet in the dining-room, and a Brussels in William’s study…The Turkey carpet (it is a large room) will cost twenty-two guineas, and a Scotch carpet would cost nine or ten. The Turkey will last out four Scotch, therefore will be the cheaper, and will never be shabby…The house is very comfortable, and most convenient, though far from being as good a house as we expected.”

Room at Rydal Mount
Rydal Mount may not have lived up to Dorothy’s hopes but there were no more moves. William died at Rydal Mount in 1850, Dorothy, free at last of builders and smoking chimneys, in 1855 and Mary in 1859.

William Wordsworth runs at Theatre by the Lake in Keswick from 1-22 April. For tickets phone 017687 74411 or book online at
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David Ward is Theatre by the Lake’s literary consultant.