Last Friday was the final performance of Like a Chemist from Canada, the play in which I have been taking a minor role as the English singer Margaret Ritchie. Appropriately enough, the show was in Oxford University’s Sheldonian Theatre, the space in which some of the play’s events took place in 1958 when honorary degrees were conferred on Shostakovich and Poulenc. The performance was preceded by a walkabout in Oxford by Shostakovich (Lucien Morgan, seen left in ceremonial robes) with his KGB minders lurking behind him.
Inevitably, trying to take any publicity photos out of doors in tourist season in Oxford attracts attention. The cast of Like a Chemist from Canada is now probably featured in photo albums across the world, without the owners having any clue why. We were also accosted by a man who was particularly concerned about the angle of the mortarboard worn by the Public Orator (Carl Gombrich) and spent some time enlightening us about the correct way to wear it. He wasn’t able to say whether his way was historically correct for 1958 but was insistent nonetheless.
In the performances we’ve given, we’ve had the challenge of three very different spaces; the modern ‘black box’ of the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadlers Wells; the Duke’s Hall, built in 1911 as a concert venue at the Royal Academy of Music; and the Sheldonian, a space designed in the 1660s by Sir Christopher Wren for ceremonial use by the University of Oxford (see left). Different aspects of the buildings have favoured different aspects of the play and made for interestingly different experiences. From a singing point of view, the Sheldonian was the most enjoyable, but that wasn’t the easiest space for hearing text clearly. It was definitely the most historic and beautiful venue too, despite the Edwardian grandeur of the Royal Academy. From a purely theatrical point of view, the Lilian Baylis studio allowed us to control the lighting and, therefore, the stage in a more traditionally theatrical way. Action can guide the audience’s eye but there’s nothing like a big pool of light to show people exactly what they should be looking at. On the other hand, it’s amazing how little is actually needed to suggest different locations clearly to the audience and when the lighting state didn’t change with each new scene it didn’t seem to interfere with anyone’s understanding.
The final performance also brought the frisson of knowing that the audience included family members of some of the characters portrayed. Aline Berlin (Isaiah’s widow) only died last year, and her son is still alive. He, and relatives of some other characters, met the playwright and actors during rehearsals. They not only came along but, more importantly, approved of how their forbears were portrayed in the piece. Margaret Ritchie, my character, didn’t marry or have children so I don’t know whether there is anyone still alive who would have recognised her from (or disagreed with) my portrayal of her. I did have a lot of fun researching her though, and hope she would have approved of my singing. I feel fairly sure she would have passed a dry remark about my splendid diva-ish evening dress, seen left with Tanya Ursova, my accompanist for the project.
For details of Like a Chemist from Canada and full cast see here.