Sunday, August 25, 2013

Playing Shakespeare’s and Ibsen’s heroines: the career of Janet Achurch by Sylvia Morris

After Shakespeare’s, Henrik Ibsen’s plays are the most-performed dramas ever written. They were immediately popular and were produced around the world even during his lifetime. Set in his native Norway, the plays explored what lay behind the strict moral regime of late nineteenth-century family life, in particular the role of women. A Doll’s House is the most famous: it centres on the struggles of the heroine Nora and ends with her slamming the door of her house as she walks out on her husband and children. It’s a scene which was scandalous in its day and still provokes debate.

Actresses who have played Shakespeare’s heroines have also distinguished themselves in Ibsen’s plays. And the first actress to play Nora in England was one who had already performed Shakespeare’s strongest women including Lady Macbeth, Portia, Desdemona and Beatrice. She is the subject of an article Before Ibsen: the early stage career of Janet Achurch, 1883-89,  in the latest issue of Theatre Notebook (Volume 67 no 2, 2013) by Bernard Ince.
Ince begins his article with the statement “An actress of Janet Achurch’s status warrants little introduction”, but although I knew her name I knew little of her career. In fact she was a bit of a mystery to me. Among the stained glass windows known as the Benson windows  in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is one of Janet Achurch in the role of Lady Macbeth. But although she worked with Frank Benson, she never performed in Stratford-upon-Avon, so why was she commemorated in this way?

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