Helen Edmundson

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Plays by Helen Edmundson

Anna Karenina (adapt. Edmundson)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, is a meditation on the nature of love. It was first performed by Shared Experience at the Theatre Royal, Winchester, on 30 January 1992 at the start of a nationwide tour.

Married to a provincial governor, the punctilious Alexei Karenin, Anna revolts against her life of compromise when she meets the charming officer Count Vronsky. She embarks on a scandalous affair, which completely destroys her family life and brings her to the brink of destruction. Interspersed with Anna’s tragic downfall is the story of Levin, an idealistic landowner striving to find meaning in his life – a character often seen as a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself. Edmundson's adaptation illuminates the story's grand pattern: how the adulterous Anna travels towards disintegration and death, while the young landowner, Levin, travels toward maturity and a sense of wholeness.

Edmundson frames the action of Tolstoy’s novel within an imagined dialogue between Levin and Anna. She brings Anna and Levin together in the opening scene: 'This is my story,' says Anna. 'It seems it is mine too,' replies Levin, and for the remainder of the play scenes are set and emotions summarised through the imaginary exchange of their confidences. The device allows Edmundson to distil the novel down to a carefully curated selection of episodes; she is able to translate almost a thousand pages, and a cast of nearly as many, into an intimate chamber drama.

In an author's note in the published text, Edmundson explains her decision not to cut the Levin strand of the novel, as many adaptations do: 'Without Levin, Anna Karenina is a love story, extraordinary and dark, but essentially a love story. With Levin it becomes something great.'

The Shared Experience production was directed by Nancy Meckler and designed by Lucy Weller. The cast was Annabelle Apsion, Katherine Barker, Tilly Blackwood, Gregory Floy, Max Gold, Richard Hope, Nigel Lindsay and Pooky Quesnel. The production then toured to Cardiff, Oxford, Leeds, Leicester, Taunton, Salisbury, and finally to the Tricycle Theatre, London, where it opened on 10 March 1992.

The play was revived at the Arcola Theatre, London, in 2011 by The Piano Removal Company, directed by Max Webster.

The Clearing

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson’s The Clearing is an original play about the effects of Oliver Cromwell’s military campaign in Ireland. It was first performed at the Bush Theatre, London, in November 1993.

The play is set in Ireland in 1652. Oliver Cromwell has passed the Act for the Settlement of Ireland, decreeing that all Catholic landowners must relocate to the province of Connaught, a blighted and barren land in the west of the country. Madeleine, an Irish woman married to an English man, Robert Preston, has just given birth to their first child, but their joy is short-lived. Their union becomes the focus of an ever-rising resentment within their small farming community. As the English parliament under Cromwell’s command mount their ‘to Hell or Connaught’ policy, the Prestons’ happy world is torn apart.

The Bush Theatre premiere was directed by Lynne Parker, with Adrian Rawlins as Robert Preston and Susan Lynch as Madeleine. The play went on to win a Time Out Theatre Award and the John Whiting Award.

The play was revived by Shared Experience in 2002 on a tour starting in Birmingham on 7 March and including a month-long engagement from 23 April to 25 May at London's Tricycle Theatre. The production was directed by Polly Teale and designed by Angela Davies. The cast was Amelda Brown, Pip Donaghy, Aislin McGuckin, Mairead McKinley and Joseph Millson.

Coram Boy

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's stage adaptation of Jamila Gavin's Whitbread Award-winning children's novel, Coram Boy (published in 2000), is a Dickensian tale of philanthropy, foundling children, and families both divided and, ultimately, reunited. It was first performed, with music composed by Adrian Sutton, in the Olivier auditorium of the National Theatre, London, on 15 November 2005 (previews from 2 November).

In 18th-century Gloucestershire, the evil Otis Gardner preys on unmarried mothers, promising to take their babies (and their money) to Thomas Coram's hospital for foundling children. Instead, he buries the babies and pockets the loot. But Otis's downfall is set in train when his half-witted son Meshak falls in love with a young girl, Melissa, and rescues the unwanted son she has had with a disgraced aristocrat. The child is brought up in Coram's hospital, and proves to have inherited the startling musical gifts of his father – gifts that ultimately bring about his father's redemption and a heartbreaking family reunion.

The National Theatre premiere was directed by Melly Still and designed by Ti Green and Melly Still. It was performed by Jack Tarlton, Justine Mitchell, Nicholas Tizzard, Abby Ford, Anna Madeley, Paul Ritter, Ruth Gemmell, Inika Leigh Wright, Adam Shipway, Rebecca Johnson, Kelly Williams, Eve Matheson, Katherine Manners, Sophie Bould, William Scott-Masson, Bertie Carvel, Sharon Maharaj, Akiya Henry, Chetna Pandya and Stuart McLoughlin.

It was revived at the National Theatre from November 2006 to February 2007.

The play opened on Broadway at the Imperial Theater on 2 May 2007, with previews from 16 April 2007, directed by Melly Still.

The Heresy of Love

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's play The Heresy of Love is based on the extraordinary life of Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz, a poet, nun and major literary figure of Mexico. The play was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and first performed in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 2 February 2012.

In a convent in seventeenth-century Mexico, Sister Juana strives to reconcile her love for God with her desire for a life of the mind. Her gift for writing plays and poems is celebrated by the Court, but her success creates alarm within the Church. Persecuted by a zealous archbishop, Sister Juana’s world threatens to crumble around her as everything she holds dear is jeopardised by dangerous ambitions and illicit desires. The play places Juana’s faith at the centre of the story and provokes questions about orthodox belief systems and the silencing of women within the Church.

In an author's note in the published edition of the play, Edmundson writes, 'I decided early on that I wanted to try to write about [Sister Juana] rather as a seventeenth-century Spanish playwright might have done. The context and high drama of her story seemed to invite this. So I have luxuriated in intrigues and rivalries, in disguised identities and mischievous servants. I have made full use of the bold and sudden contrast of the comic and the dramatic, characteristic of the period, and enjoyed forging a rhythmic and heightened language.'

The RSC production was directed by Nancy Meckler and designed by Katrina Lindsay. The cast was Teresa Banham, Geoffrey Beavers, Matthew Flynn, Raymond Coulthard, Dona Croll, Marty Cruickshank, Laura Darrall, Catherine Hamilton, Diana Kent, Youssef Kerkour, Catherin McCormack, Ian Midlane, Sarah Ovens, Daniel Stewart and Simon Thorp.

The play was revived in a new production at Shakespeare's Globe, London, in July 2015, directed by John Dove and directed by Michael Taylor.

Mary Shelley

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's Mary Shelley is a play that explores the extraordinary life of the author of Frankenstein. It was first performed in a co-production between Shared Experience, Nottingham Playhouse and West Yorkshire Playhouse, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, on 16 March 2012.

The play centres on a crucial episode in Mary's early life. Her parents, radical feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and political philosopher William Godwin, are struggling under the weight of heavy debts. When young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley becomes a regular visitor to the house, his financial stability and dangerous charisma charms the family, especially Godwin’s three young daughters. But it is feisty young Mary who becomes the object of his affections. The play details their scandalous elopement when Mary was just sixteen and the impact it has upon her stepmother, her sisters and above all, her troubled father. Three years after this life-changing event, Mary would write one of the greatest novels in the English language, Frankenstein, which changed the literary landscape forever.

The Shared Experience production was directed by Polly Teale and designed by Naomi Dawson. The cast was Kristin Atherton, Flora Nicholson, Sadie Shimmin, Shannon Tarbet, William Chubb and Ben Lamb. It subsequently toured to Nottingham Playhouse; Liverpool Playhouse; Hull Truck Theatre; Northern Stage, Newcastle; Oxford Playhouse; Winchester Theatre Royal and the Tricycle Theatre, London.

The Mill on the Floss

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's adaptation of George Eliot's novel, The Mill on the Floss, was first performed by Shared Experience Theatre Company in association with the Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich, on 17 March 1994.

Outgrowing – but still hopelessly devoted to – her family, Maggie Tulliver befriends the disfigured Phillip Wakem, son of a local lawyer. But their fathers soon become embroiled in a bitter legal dispute that only the prosperous Wakem can win and the Tullivers find fate dealing them the first harsh hand of many. With their father dead, and their precious mill gone, the family must face up to their cold future together.

Edmundson's adaptation re-imagines Eliot's novel by having three different actors play the heroine Maggie. The three actors play distinct and sometimes contradictory facets of Maggie's character, at times sharing the performing space and interacting with each other. In a review of the Shared Experience production, the drama critic of the Evening Standard noted that 'The device of the three Maggies expresses beautifully the heroine's emotional conflict, with number one arguing for impetuous passion against number two's moral restraint as number three is drawn into a relationship with her cousin's wooer.' The Guardian declared the device ‘thrillingly effective in performance’.

The Shared Experience production was directed by Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale, and designed by Bunny Christie. The cast was Simeon Andrews, Shirley Henderson, Michael Matus, Buddug Morgan, Ian Puleston-Davies, Simon Robson, Clara Salaman and Helen Schlesinger. It toured nationally, including a run at the Tricycle Theatre, London, in May 1994.

Shared Experience revived the play at the New Ambassadors in the West End in 2001.

Mother Teresa is Dead

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's play Mother Teresa is Dead explores the thorny issue of Western guilt towards the Third World. It was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 20 June 2002 – the first original play of Edmundson’s to be staged in since The Clearing in 1993.

Mark arrives in a village near Madras to try and find his wife, Jane. He doesn't understand what could have driven her to abandon their young son. India is hot, dusty and poor, and a long way from their comfortable life in London. But Jane can't explain why she needed to escape or how she ended up looking after children in India – or what is in the white plastic bag she’s been holding on to since she got there.

The Royal Court production was directed by Simon Usher and designed by Anthony Lamble. The cast was Diana Quick, John Marquez, Harry Dillon and Maxine Peake.

Orestes: Blood and Light

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson’s Orestes is a drama about avenging siblings, exploring the tragedy of human relationships set against the backdrop of war. It is based on Euripides’ Electra. Orestes was first performed by Shared Experience at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, on 14 September 2006.

Orestes and his sister, Electra, were banished as children after witnessing the brutal murder of their father, King Agamemnon, at the hands of their mother, Klytemnestra. Years later, they have avenged their father’s death with matricide and now the city must vote to determine their future as they stand trial for her murder. Inflamed by the situation of war, the city stands divided over their sentence. Some say the killing should be met with banishment and that the cycle of revenge must be stopped. But others are baying for their blood.

In her foreword to the published edition of the play, Edmundson writes 'I have played fast and loose with the conventions of Greek theatre and with Euripides’ version of the story. I have abandoned the Chorus (who is not active or influential in the Euripides) in favour of the more subtle witness of the Slave. I have cut the character of Pylades to allow Electra her full role in the story and to allow myself to explore the extremities of her relationship with her brother. I have given Helen an intelligent, probing mind and allowed her and Klytemnestra some defence. I have chosen not to emulate the verse structure and metres of Euripides’ text, but to try to create a rhythmic, heightened language of my own.'

The play's full title in the published edition is Orestes: Blood and Light.

The Shared Experience production was directed by Nancy Meckler and designed by Niki Turner, with Tim Chipping as Menelaos, Jeffery Kissoon as Tyndareos, Mairead McKinley as Electra, Clara Onyemere as Helen, Claire Prempeh as the Slave and Alex Robertson as Orestes. The production subsequently toured to Dublin Theatre Festival, Warwick Arts Centre, The Lowry in Salford, Liverpool Playhouse, Oxford Playhouse and the Tricycle Theatre, London.

Queen Anne

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's play Queen Anne tells the story of one of England’s little-known sovereigns, her friendship with Sarah Churchill and the birth of the free press in England at the turn of the 18th century. It was commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and premiered at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 20 November 2015.

The play opens with a song satirising current political events, penned by a group of satirists whose influence grows throughout the play. Princess Anne has been plagued by ill health all her life and, despite seventeen pregnancies, has produced no heirs with her husband, Prince George of Denmark. The Union of King William III and Anne’s sister Queen Mary was also childless, leaving Anne in succession for the throne. With the death of King William in 1702, Anne becomes Queen. England is at war and in a Grand Alliance with the protestant nations against the Catholic Spanish and French sovereigns to prevent ‘The Pretender’ King Louis’ dominance in Europe. As Anne grieves for her recently deceased father and the loss of what will be her final pregnancy, her close advisors seek to influence her from all corners. Sarah Churchill, her intimate friend since childhood, is granted key positions in the Royal Household and seeks to advise and manipulate Anne to further her own political agenda and career, and that of her husband, the Duke of Marlborough. Lord Chancellor Goldolphin, together with Sarah’s husband Marlborough (trusted Commander-in-Chief of the allied forces), exert pressure to their own ends. Anne begins to understand her power as she becomes increasingly involved and informed in political matters. Sarah pushes the Whig agenda that supports her husband’s wars, but Anne is drawn to advisors who share her religious views and support a strong monarchy. As a result, her friendship with Sarah starts to unravel and Anne begins to find new allies. Sarah fears she is being replaced in Anne’s affection by a new member of the royal household, Abigail Hill, adding personal tension to the political difference between them. As tensions rise, Godolphin is dismissed by Anne and Sarah turns to the ruthless, increasingly bold satirists for help. Prince George dies. Despite a string of notable victories won by the Duke of Marlborough including at Blenheim, Anne uncovers his betrayal and suspends him from his position. Sarah and the Duke of Marlborough are dismissed from court and retreat to Europe and Anne brokers peace, finding her voice as Queen.

The RSC production was directed by Natalie Abrahami and designed by Hannah Clark. The cast was Daisy Ashford, Jonathan Broadbent, Robert Cavanah (as John Churchill), Jonathan Christie, Emma Cunniffe (as Queen Anne), Daniel Easton, Michael Fenton Stevens, Richard Hope, Natascha McElhone (as Sarah Churchill), Hywel Morgan, Beth Park, Carl Prekopp, Jenny Rainsford, Elliott Ross, Anna Tierney, Tom Turner and Ragevan Vasan.

Swallows and Amazons

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's stage adaptation of Arthur Ransome's 1930 novel, Swallows and Amazons, with songs by Neil Hannon, was first performed at the Bristol Old Vic on 1 December 2010. The production was remounted by the National Theatre in association with the Children’s Touring Partnership at the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End, with performances from 15 December 2011 and a subsequent national tour.

The stage version begins in the attic of an old house, where Titty, an old woman, comes across some old photographs while dusting. As the photographs spring into life, and the duster is transformed into a parrot called Polly, Titty is transported to the Lake District in the summer of 1929 to relive the adventures of her childhood along with John, Susan and Roger; Nancy and Peggy, the self-proclaimed Amazon Pirates; and the dastardly Captain Flint.

In a production note included in the published text, Helen Edmundson writes: 'Imagination is at the very centre of Swallows and Amazons. The children in the story are given the freedom to act out an ambitious, enthralling, imaginative game. And that proved to be the key to this adaptation, and to the staging of it. No need for real boats on real water, no need for owls and cormorants, no need, even, for children (they were played by adults in the first production, although I would love to see children perform it).'

The Bristol Old Vic production was directed by Tom Morris, with movement by Toby Sedgwick and set and costume design by Robert Innes Hopkins. The cast was Celia Adams, Amy Booth-Steel, Rosalie Craig, Akiya Henry, Stuart McLoughlin, Stewart Wright, Alice Barclay, Trevor Michael Georges, Fionn Gill, Pieter Lawman, Richard Standing and Kyra Williams.

Picture of Helen Edmundson

© Richard Olivier

Helen Edmundson is a British playwright who has worked extensively with touring theatre company Shared Experience.

Her original plays include Flying (National Theatre Studio, 1990); The Clearing (Bush Theatre, 1993 and winner of the John Whiting and Time Out Awards); Mother Teresa is Dead (Royal Court, 2006); Mary Shelley (Shared Experience UK Tour, 2012) and The Heresy of Love (RSC, 2012).

Her theatre adaptations include Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (Theatre Royal Bath, 2014); Mephisto, from the novel by Klaus Mann (Altonaer Theatre, Hamburg, 2013); the book for the musical Swallows and Amazons based on the novel by Arthur Ransome (Bristol Old Vic, 2010, Vaudeville Theatre, 2011, UK Tour, 2012 and nominated for the Ned Sherrin Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical); Life is a Dream from the play by Pedro Calderón (Donmar Warehouse, 2009) and Coram Boy, from the novel by Jamila Gavin (National Theatre, 2005, Imperial Theatre, New York, 2007 and winner of a Time Out Award). In 1992, she adapted Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for Shared Experience, for whom she also adapted The Mill on the Floss in 1994. Both won awards – the TMA and the Time Out Awards respectively – and both productions were twice revived and extensively toured. Shared Experience have also staged her original adaptation of War and Peace at the National Theatre in 2006, and toured her adaptation of Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth in 2004, Euripides’ Orestes in 2006, and the new two-part version of War and Peace in 2008.