Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Tom Littler: The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith

By | Published on Thursday 10 April 2014

poster for The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith

If you told me you hadn’t heard of Victorian playwright Arthur Wing Pinero I wouldn’t be terribly surprised, even despite two recent stagings of his plays at the National and the Donmar. He was considered one of the greatest playwrights of his day, yet his work is in these times rarely produced.  Luckily for Londoners, however, they will this month get the chance to see the first ever revival of his  1895 play ‘The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith’.

The revival has been produced by Primavera, a theatre company keen to “unearth forgotten masterpieces” as well as to stage new and classic plays. I sent some questions over to the group’s artistic director Tom Littler, to find out more about this latest production.

CM: Can you tell us what ‘The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith’ is about?
TL: It’s about a scandalous relationship in Victorian high society. Lucas Cleeve, a young Tory MP, is having an affair with Agnes Ebbsmith, who is a political radical and an early feminist. They are on the run in Italy, living in sin, but Lucas’s family are soon involved, trying to get him to go back to his wife and career in London. We have a wonderful director in Abbey Wright, and a terrific cast.

CM: The themes address social radicalism and the defying of morally motivated conventions – do you think these themes still have relevance for us now?
TL: Absolutely – look at the abuse prominent feminists have received over the last year, on Twitter alone. Life can be very difficult for anyone who is prepared to challenge the status quo.

CM: This play isn’t one of Arthur Wing Pinero’s more recognisable titles. What attracted you to this particular one?
TL: It’s a brilliant and original play with a gripping story and great characters. It’s thoroughly entertaining but also really thought-provoking, and feels incredibly modern. And of course it is always very exciting to produce something that nobody in the audience will ever have seen.

CM: The play was a great success when it was first performed. Why do you think no one has ever wanted to revive it before?
TL: It was premiered in 1895, but Pinero went out of fashion in the early 20th century. I think if a play falls out of the repertoire for a generation or so, it’s very hard for it to make it back into production. There aren’t many Victorian plays, apart from the very well-known titles like The Importance of Being Earnest, that we see produced frequently.

CM: One of Primavera’s key aims is to revive plays which may have been overlooked or forgotten, isn’t it?
TL: It is, and it’s a strand of work that has become really important in British theatre, I think. Theatres like the Finborough, the Jermyn Street, and the Orange Tree can bring forgotten plays back to life for a new generation of theatregoers, who will never have seen that work.

CM: You also like to focus on getting newer plays to a wider audience. Do playwrights come to you with their work, or do you go looking for it?
TL: We usually go looking for it. If we had more funding, we’d accept unsolicited new plays, but as things stand we can only afford to do a limited amount of work.

CM: Which has been your most satisfying production to date?
TL: That’s such a difficult question, because as a director you tend to think about the present and the future, not about the past. Strindberg’s ‘Dances of Death’, which Howard Brenton wrote a brilliant new version of, was very special, though. Right now I am in rehearsals for ‘Martine’ at the Finborough Theatre, and loving every second of it.

CM: What does the future have in store? What next from Primavera?
TL: Opening two weeks after ‘The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith’ we have ‘Martine’ – a beautiful French romance from the 1920s that will break your heart. We have a super cast including Hannah Murray as Martine. Then in the autumn we are reviving Terence Rattigan’s debut play, ‘First Episode’, at the Jermyn Street Theatre.

‘The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith’ is on at Jermyn Street Theatre until 3 May. See the venue website for more info, and this page here to book tickets online.

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