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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Katherine Robson is a Collections Trainee at the Wordsworth Trust. Katherine helps to record and care for the Trust’s collection, develop exhibitions 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.
By Katherine Robson