I am now entering the week of our opening night. We have our final rehearsal tomorrow, then the tech and dress rehearsal, and then that’s it. We open.
It is nerve-wracking, of course, knowing how ready we have to be on Wednesday, for our paying audience, but ultimately it is exhilarating. It has, after all, taken four years to get to this point. To be able to sit here, writing nonchalantly about my play and the fact it is really going to happen.
It has been a roller-coaster ride to get here. A couple of years ago the play was shelved indefinitely and it looked as though there was no hope for my play ever to be brought to life. So I am thrilled that it is not only being staged, but being staged in Sydenham, where it belongs. Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk was always, from its conception, my gift to the people of Sydenham, just as it is my gift to Eleanor Marx.
Back in 2014, I was busy rehearsing Till the boys come Home, my 4-part WW1 music set in Sydenham. We were rehearsing in St. Bartholomew’s church, when a member of the choir, and of the Sydenham community, Rabia Rahim, came up to me and thrust a pamphlet under my nose and was pointing to it excitedly, saying, ‘You must write a play about this woman. This woman founded the gas workers’ union. She lived in the next road from here. Jews Walk. You must write a play about her.’
So I looked at the pamphlet and this little thumbnail of a book that had just been published, written by someone called Rachel Holmes: Eleanor Marx: a Life and quickly googled her, as you do, when you’re told you must write a play about someone. I discovered this remarkable woman, and amazing-sounding story, and nipped to Jews Walk to have a look at number 7.
So that was my first encounter with Eleanor, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, and with Rachel, and became the inspiration for my next play.
I read Rachel’s book and fell in love with Eleanor Marx, both the real person and the character I wanted to write. As the youngest daughter of a penniless socialist, with a big bushy beard, huge ideas and a German-Jewish surname, I had much in common with the young “Tussy”, as she was known to family and friends.
Eleanor was an early translator of Ibsen’s plays and I knew, immediately, upon reading Rachel’s excellent book, that I wanted to write it in the style of an Ibsen play and I wanted to set it entirely at Jews Walk.
Ibsen’s plays are notable in that they tend to have a single domestic setting and span a short time-frame, and often have a strong female lead. The Ibsen style and structure fitted very well the vision I had for this play, set in the house and spanning only the last few chapters of Rachel’s book. Although, just as in Ibsen plays, the past would be ever-present in the play.
Due to Eleanor’s fascination with her Jewish heritage, and her saying of herself ‘I am a Jewess’, I came up with a title immediately: ‘The Jewess of Jews Walk’. So I told my brother Jonathan, ‘I’m going to write this play, it’s called ‘The Jewess of Jews Walk’ and it’s set entirely at Jews Walk’ (which is around the corner from him) and, being Jonathan, he commissioned me to write it.
And I went off to research further.
Rolling onto December 2014, I went along to a screening at LSE of a documentary about the miners strike, at which a humble Labour backbencher was speaking, called … Jeremy Corbyn … who I knew best at the time for being someone my dad had once had lunch with. I mentioned to my friend I went with, just in passing, ‘I’m writing a play about a woman who founded a union’. She must have remembered, for two months later she got me a ticket to hear Rachel Holmes speak.
I sat through Rachel’s talk, and took copious notes, and I went up to her at the end, when she was busy signing people’s books (anyone who knows me will know I never do things like that, go up to them and tell them about what I’m doing) but I knew I had to.
So I plucked up the courage to speak to this wonderful biographer I was totally in awe of and told her about my play. And … she was interested.
Back in 2014 Marx was a dirty word, his ideas were deemed old-fashioned, and wrong. But since then the world has changed. There’s now Brexit, a reality TV star in the White House and we’ve seen the rise of a humble Labour backbencher called … Jeremy Corbyn. Marxism is back in the news again, as is — by coincidence — Jewishness. Add to this the #MeToo campaign and the fact the play is about domestic abuse, Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk has become timely.
Last Friday, we had our pre-play event ‘Eleanor and Friends’, at which Rachel Holmes and I both spoke, alongside Dr. Dana Mills, poet Tara Bergin and local historian Steve Grindlay. At this event we unveiled a couple of extracts from my play, to a phenomenal reaction from the audience, as well as — I’m pleased to say — Rachel and the other Friends of Eleanor.
I made my speech, which was similar in content to what I have written above, but due to nerves, skipped over the name Rabia Rahim. I had hoped Rabia had heard of the event and come along, but because we only left a message with her at lunchtime that day, I was not at all hopeful she would be there. However, in the interval Jonathan said to me, ‘Lucy, Rabia’s here’ and was promptly reunited with her. Of course I said, ‘You must meet Rachel’ and took her to introduce them to each other. Rachel must have recognised Rabia’s accent, for immediately they realised they are from the same small town in South Africa.
Eleanor Marx does things like that. She unites (and reunites) people.
Eleanor Marx: The Jewess of Jews Walk opens this week (Wed. 18th April) at The Sydenham Centre, Sydenham, around the corner from where she lived and died, in mysterious circumstances. It runs for four weeks until May 12th.
Tickets here: http://spontaneousproductions.co.uk/events/eleanor-marx-the-jewess-of-jews-walk-from-weds-18-april/