Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Importance of Being Edith

Any freelance live interpreter will be used to changing character and costume with improbable frequency, and dashing from venue to venue, but this October I have experienced a whole new level of identity crisis. Here are some personal reflections on the serious business of keeping historical entertainment respectful and accurate.

About a year ago, Norfolk WI ladies pointed out to me that 2015 was the 100-year anniversary of their organisation AND the death of Nurse Edith Cavell, and please would I put together 'one of my talks' on those themes. I was intrigued. Like me, Edith Cavell is a Norfolk girl- coincidentally born in Swardeston, the village right next door to mine. I also do a lot of work for the WIs, so I was keen to oblige...

I researched lots, put together a costume, and began to assemble a talk. I learned loads about Miss Cavell and gained enormous respect for her.

Firstly, creating the talk was a challenge, because this was subject matter I couldn't handle with my usual light touch; no place for jokes about knickers- this is a tragic story, and one still just about in living memory. Edith has living relatives. 

Secondly- What about presentation style? My tried and tested technique is to hop in and out of character for my set-piece talks, which means I'm able to explain the broader context for the characters. That didn't seem right for Edith. No matter how much research on the facts I did, or how much empathy I felt for her, or the fact of my authentic Norfolk accent (at last- it's come in handy!), how could I presume to 'be' Edith? 

I guess that initially, I just wasn't comfortable with the idea of pretending to be the lady herself. So I put together a talk in which I not only traced her life story but also explored her upbringing and her character in an effort to understand how she could 'give her life happily for her country', as she said herself on the eve of her execution. To illustrate the narrative I wore a replica WW1 nurse's costume and also decided to use quotes from original historical source material like diaries and letters, secondary resources like autobiographies of those that knew Edith, and examples of music from the time. 

Other people paid tribute to Edith in a variety of ways through plays, re-enactments, artworks and exhibitions. There was a festival in Swardeston and a series of events in the Norwich Forum. I participated in both- I have to say it was extremely weird to meet numerous 'Ediths' in one place! Personally I struggled with the idea of Edith being played by anybody -however well- who doesn't at the very least share a passing physical resemblance to her. I strongly believe that a geographically close or neutral accent is important too, as is a realistic 'playing age', for any re-enactments. Or maybe that's just my nerdy re-enactor side showing through a bit! Perhaps the actor's intent is more important?

As it happened, I was grateful to have chosen to speak about Edith, not as her, because her family came to see one of the talks I did at the Forum. Her great-niece, Claire Wood, was very complimentary about my work. Phew!

However, in spite of my best efforts NOT to to 'be' Edith, most people who saw my talk still thought that was what I was doing, probably because I was in costume! 

Eventually I was hijacked (in a friendly way) by local historian Neil Storey for a sunshiney photo-call at Norwich Cathedral on the anniversary date with a group of WW1 military re-enactors. This kind of sealed my fate; the photos are beautiful- but they did cast me firmly in role as Edith (again, slightly oddly, paying respects at 'my own' graveside...). 

After it all, in the end I found I was glad to have 'been' Edith for this once-in-a-lifetime commemoration. I've done many talks for lots of WIs since, and audiences have taken the opportunity to share their own stories about their connections to Edith. One lady even showed me her family treasure; a book signed by Edith herself.

To use reality tv parlance, I'd had a bit of a 'journey'. I discovered it had become more important to me than I realised that this ordinary lady, who made an extraordinary sacrifice, was remembered with the respect and accuracy I felt she deserved. 

I also surprised myself to find that I had a turnaround about 'being' Edith. In the course of doing these talks it had become personally -as well as professionally- important to me to be Edith, as a mark of my own identity as a Norfolk woman. It wasn't just about appearance or accent, and indeed, I don't have much in common with Edith Cavell in terms of character, religion or vocation. But this broad, flat county with its big fields and wide skies is our shared birthplace, and like Edith, it's the place I'm proud to call home. 

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