Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing by Shelagh Stephenson. Photo Keith Pattison
Last week saw the opening of Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing to a full and enthusiastic audience at Live Theatre. It is the second production in Shelagh Stephenson’s trilogy of plays exploring Tyneside’s heritage. This play centred on Harriet Martineau, arguably the first female sociologist, during her five-year residency in Tynemouth. The narrative takes place in a boarding-house – where Martineau wrote a series of essays entitled Life in the Sickroom – and indeed the real-life guesthouse in which it is situated is now named in Martineau’s honour. Martineau had gone to live near her sister and doctor brother-in-law to recover from a debilitating illness, and one can imagine our small northern coastal town as a world away from her previous surroundings amongst London’s academic elite.
The title role is played by Lizzy McInnerny (sister of Blackadder’s Tim McInnerny who was in the audience) who gives a commendable performance as the sharp-tongued and opinionated protagonist with a dry sense of humour. It is funny to see Martineau’s claims of victimhood (through her sickness and her position as a woman) contrasted with her refusal to be anything but. She is a strong female character who is sensitive to the injustices faced by the women around her. While Stephenson has given the character intellectual authority, she demonstrates how far even the most forward thinkers have to come by showcasing Martineau’s ignorance on issues of class (through her maid Jane) and her belief in the Victorian pseudoscience mesmerism.
Those expecting a history play will be disappointed as the narrative only alludes to Martineau’s public life and instead focuses on the lives and attitudes of those living in Tynemouth. It becomes clear that the primary purpose of the play is to explore the ideology behind these attitudes, in doing so exposing the inconsistencies that lie there. Stephenson even takes an aspect of Martineau’s public life – her campaigning for the abolition of slavery – and transforms this into the basis for a plot involving the struggles of a mixed race girl born into slavery. The play posed various philosophical questions to the audience about privilege, whether that be in regard race, gender or class. There were interesting comparisons to be made to the present day; for instance Martineau believes once women get the vote it won’t be long before half of MPs are women, a feat still to be achieved two centuries later. The overall mood of the play was light-hearted with a touch of farce, and there were lots good jokes to bring comic relief to the sociological overtones. It was interesting to see the juxtapositions between the different character-types and the supporting cast gave great performances. The two most eccentric of these were the most entertaining. Amy McAllister played the slightly mad local girl Impie, whose disconnection from reality allows her to see past social convention and become a kind of unconscious feminist in the life she leads. She also has an unhealthy obsession with seals. The other was played by Deka Walmsley, a broad Geordie whose ignorance upon the issues of gender and race is astounding to the modern ear. One of his main attributes is to apparently not hear a woman’s input to a conversation before claiming these words as his own. While the clear villain of the piece, you get the sense that his views were a product of what was prevalent at the time and his now glaring naivety gives him a sort of charm.
The link to dancing felt a little tenuous as a metaphor, but the dancing sequences – set to the folk music of Mercury prize-nominated The Unthanks – were an entertaining framing device. The set was dominated by Martineau’s chaise longue, allowing her to gain control of her space even in sickness. My favourite part of the set was the large window overlooking a backdrop of a misty Tynemouth, through which the characters could hear the singing of the local fishermen and women. I really enjoyed the production and would recommend catching it while you can; it’s on until 3rd December at Live Theatre so get booking!