'Much Ado About Something' at Smallhythe Place
Actress Dame Ellen Terry was an A-list celebrity of the Victorian age, her technique was a forerunner to method acting, and at the height of her fame she was earning today’s equivalent of thousands of pounds each week. Now, costumes and memorabilia relating to one of her most acclaimed roles, in Shakespeare’s 'Much Ado About Nothing' in 1882, are on display together for the first time in the Costume Room of her former home, Smallhythe Place in Kent.
As the leading actress of her generation, Ellen Terry appeared for over two decades at London’s Lyceum Theatre. With her co-star, the actor-manager Henry Irving, they delighted audiences with their portrayals of some of the greatest Shakespearean couples. Their production of 'Much Ado About Nothing', in the roles of Beatrice and Benedick, was one of the Lyceum’s biggest hits with audiences and critics alike, cementing Ellen’s immense popularity.
'Much Ado About Nothing' - The Lyceum in the Strand 1882
In 1882 Ellen Terry was 35 years old and flying high. She had joined the Lyceum company three years earlier at the invitation of the great actor-manager Henry Irving who wanted her as his Leading lady. Bram Stoker was his business manager at the Lyceum as well as a drama critic and the author of Dracula. The three worked closely together in glittering partnership for over 20 years.
'Much Ado About Nothing' was rarely performed at the time but Irving revived it as vehicle for Ellen to give her the chance to play a part that would suit her talents perfectly.
She was an instinctive and emotional actress who fastidiously studied her parts. She sought truth and depth in her characterisations long before method acting was recognised as a technique.
" Beatrice’s wit came jetting from her lips as if every word of it had just occurred at the moment. "
Lyceum productions were lavish affairs. 'Much Ado About Nothing' called for a cast and crew of 600. It included an orchestra, a choir, a military band, an organ, scores of brilliantly costumed extras and one of the most extravagant sets ever seen.
" It was beautifully produced and carefully rehearsed. The first act was all brightness and beauty. The Cathedral scene was such as was never seen on stage."
The set for the play’s church wedding scene was designed with such unprecedented realism and religious detail that there were gasps from the audience when it was revealed.
In an old book of Italian ceremonies Irving found his inspiration for the wedding scene.
" I found a picture of a wedding ceremony which struck me at once as the effect I needed, and which was of the period. With its real built out pillars thirty feet high, its canopied roof of crimson plush from which hung the golden lamps universally used in Italian cathedrals and its painted canopy overhanging the alter."
Such was his quest for perfection that when the set was completed Irving invited a priest to examine it for inaccuracies. The play was a huge success, it ran for 212 performances and was only withdrawn in order for the company to rehearse their repertoire ready for the first of their ground-breaking Lyceum tours of North America.
Three of the costumes from 'Much Ado About Nothing' are being displayed after 15 years in storage: two are in gold velvet worn by Ellen and Henry Irving from the wedding scene, which are being shown against a backdrop reproducing the famous church set. The third costume, in elaborate floral brocade and velvet, with feather fan, was worn by Ellen in another scene from the production and is shown in a dressing room setting.
The sumptuous garments were of the highest quality, made from luxurious stamped silk velvet with elaborate trimmings and fine detail by Auguste et Cie, a Costumiers run by designer Patience Harris. She produced Ellen’s costumes and often those of Irving during the first decade of Ellen’s career at the Lyceum. The expense and time involved in their creation was unprecedented.
Many hours of meticulous conservation work have been undertaken by specialist Zenzie Tinker and her team to improve the aesthetic look and structural integrity of these costumes in order to display them. This work included underpinning to support delicate areas of the clothing, careful cleaning of cuffs and collars and re-attaching loose embellishments such as pearls and beads.
Other memorabilia on show for the first time include Ellen’s script for the play, with her handwritten notes in the margins, and an original programme for the show.
" Ellen Terry was born for the part of Beatrice, it is almost as though Shakespeare had a premonition of her coming."