The real Maria

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The fictional Maria.

A new production of The Sound Of Music will be visiting our theatre this summer. As most people probably know, it’s based on a true story – but how close to reality is it?


Published in 1949, The Story Of The Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Von Trapp, inspired no less than three films. First came two German films, The Trapp Family (1956), and The Trapp Family In America (1958). The book was then adapted into a 1949 Broadway musical by the famous duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, before finally becoming the film we all know in 1965.

However, as you might expect, show business took a few liberties with the truth, in the interests of a good story. The bones of the story are correct – Maria, a postulant nun, was employed to teach the children of retired naval captain, Georg Von Trapp, and later married him. The family fled Austria in 1938 after Captain Von Trapp was summoned to join the navy of the Third Reich, following the Nazi take over of the country.

The differences between the Hollywood version and real life are in the details. The real Maria was born Maria Kutschera, in January 1905, on a train between her parents village in the Austrian Tyrol, and a hospital in the Austrian capital Vienna. She was an orphan by the age of seven, and was sent to live with a violent uncle, whom she ran away from. Not quite the isolated and naive girl from the mountains she’s portrayed as in the film, Maria graduated from the State Teachers College for Progressive Education in Vienna aged 18. A year later, in 1924, she joined the Nonnberg Abbey, in Salzburg, intending to become a nun (the abbey kept no record of postulants, so this information comes solely from Maria’s autobiography).

Maria spent two years as a postulant at the Abbey, working as a school teacher. In 1926, she was asked to teach one of the seven children of the widowed naval commander Georg Von Trapp. Eventually, she began to look after the other children as well, and it was this relationship which prompted Georg – 25 years her senior – to ask her to marry him. As in the film, Maria led back to her convent to ask the advice of the Mother Superior – who informed her that it was clearly God’s will that she should marry Captain Von Trapp.

Since Maria had always been taught to follow God’s will, she did exactly that. But far from the romantic scene shown in the movie, Maria writes that on her wedding day in 1927 she was furious, with both God and her husband, because she really had wanted to be a nun. She says: “I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children.” The romantics among you will be pleased to hear that she adds that later, “I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.”

It is worth noting that that far from the sugar-sweet character portrayed by Julie Andrews in the film, the real Maria’s quick temper and strong will were a matter of family legend. Her son Johannes (born after the family moved to America) said  “She was a complex person, incredibly strong with a formidable will, literally an indomitable will. And sometimes running into that will was not so pleasant.” He put her sometimes difficult personality down to an unhappy childhood. Maria herself said that the portrayal of her in the film and the Broadway musical it was based on was, “too gentle – I was a wild creature.”

Johannes was the third and youngest child of Maria and the captain. Two daughters were born to the couple in 1929 and 1931. As you will have spotted if you know the film well, it compresses events which really took place over many years into a very small time frame. Another difference lies in the circumstances in which the family began their singing careers. In 1935, the bank in which Georg’s savings were held collapsed, part of the global financial crisis caused by the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The family faced financial ruin – they sent away their servants, moved into just one floor of their home, and began to let the remaining rooms to students. Giving concerts was a useful way of earning extra money.

Life became increasingly difficult for the family as the Nazis began to take control of Austria – as in the film, Georg refused to fly the Nazi flag on his house – and they eventually made the decision to leave Austria. They did not, however, flee in secret by climbing over the mountains. They took the train, having told their friends and family (although not the authorities) that they were leaving.

The family settled in Vermont, in America, where as well as continuing their singing careers, they bought a hotel. Two of Maria’s stepsons even served in the American army during negotiations the Second World War. Post-war, Maria’s autobiography (published in 1949, two years after Georg’s death from lung cancer) was a best-seller, and the family’s fame grew after the release of the 1965 film. Despite her disapproval over the portrayal of her, Maria makes a cameo appearance in the film – she can be seen in the background alongside one of her daughters and a grand-daughter during the song I Have Confidence. The family’s continuing fame even led to them performing alongside Elvis Presley.

Maria died in 1987, aged 82, survived by her three children, and numerous grandchildren and step-grandchildren. The hotel the family bought in Vermont is still owned and run by the Trapp family.

The Sound Of Music: Monday 25 to Saturday 30 July. Book here.

Northern Exposure

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With Roseacre, a new play inspired by Scandinavian crime thrillers coming to The Marlowe Studio in July, we take a look at how the UK became addicted to Nordic noir.


A few years if you’d asked the average British person to name a famous Scandinavian export, they’d probably have said ABBA, or A-ha if they grew up in the eighties. Now, they’d probably give you the name of a crime series.

Our obsession with Scandi-noir began in Janaury 2011, when BBC Four began showing a four year-old Danish detective story called The Killing. Although it started with very little fanfare, word of mouth – and a collective fixation with the lead character’s jumper – made the show a hit. BBC Four realised they’d found a gold mine, and other Nordic dramas like Borgen and The Bridge followed (along with an American re-make of The Killing, but let’s not talk about that). The phenomenon wasn’t confined to television, but also embraced literature, with novels like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and its sequels regularly featuring on best seller lists.

But what is it about Nordic noir which appeals to us so much? Well, whole books have been written on this subject (yes, really) but actor Søren Malling, who starred in both The Killing and Borgen has a theory: “We’re not afraid of showing the dark side of the moon,” he says. “We paint portraits of characters who are both good and bad. It’s more polite and polished in the US and UK. You don’t want to go into the fact that people can choose career over family. We’re honest and people identify with it. That’s part of our secret.”

For Sophie Gråbøl, the star of The Killing (and wearer of that jumper), it’s the strength of the characterisations which mark Nordic drama out: “It is about avoiding speaking down to the audience by feeding them a cliché, which goes for male and female characters.”

This character driven approach is something that Square Peg, the company behind Roseacre, aim to replicate. Using the company’s distinctive style of cinematic-like physical theatre it tells the story of an undercover police officer, who becomes tangled in a web of lies and betrayal, following a murder at an environmental protest. Is anyone who they say they are? And how far will they go to keep their secrets?

Very Nordic noir…

Roseacre: The Marlowe Studio, Saturday 23 July. Book here.

 

Presenting Mr Coward

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“A series of semi-autobiographical pyrotechnics,” is how Noël Coward described his comic play Present Laughter, which comes to us in July, in a new production starring Samuel West. But how autobiographical is it really?


 

The play tells the story of actor Gary Essendine, a charming actor – with a receding hairline and a penchant for temper tantrums. As he turns 40, Gary has to deal with a crazed young playwright, women trying to seduce him, his long-suffering secretary and his ex-wife, as well as an impending mid-life crisis. Autobiographical, you say, Mr Coward?

Let’s look at the facts. Noël Pierce Coward was born on 16 December, 1899 in Teddington in south-west London, the son of a piano salesman and a naval captain’s daughter. Coward was sent to a dance academy by his ambitious mother, and made his professional stage debut at the age of just eleven. It was as a result of his involvement in the theatrical world that he was introduced to the high society world which would be the setting of many of his plays.

So by the time Present Laughter (the play’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which contains the line “present mirth has present laughter”) was written in 1939, Noël was indeed aged 40, and an actor (he even played the role of Essendine when the play was performed for the first time in 1942). Photographs of Coward from the time even show a receding hairline. If Mr Coward threw tantrums, his contemporaries were too polite to record the fact.

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But one aspect of the play certainly wasn’t autobiographical, and in the climate of the time, never could have been. While the fictional Essendine dallies with a bevy of females, Coward was homosexual, something banned in Britain until 1967. Even after this, he refused to acknowledge it publicly, saying by way of explanation, “There are a few little old ladies in Worthing who don’t know,” although he encouraged his secretary Cole Lesley to write a frank biography for publication once Coward was safely dead.

Coward’s homosexuality was probably the real reason behind Winston Churchill’s decision to block George VI’s wish to award Coward a knighthood for his war time work, both as an entertainer and with the secret service. The official reason Churchill gave to the King was that Coward had been fined for a minor breach of war time currency regulations.

Perhaps Coward had the last laugh though, as he was eventually knighted in 1969. Many of his plays, including Present Laughter, are still regularly performed, and are considered to be classics.

Present Laughter: Tuesday 19 to Saturday 23 July. Book here.

 

 

 

 

A New York Tale

 

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With our theatre soon to play host to Guys And Dolls, we take a look at Damon Runyon – the chronicler of New York life behind the guys and the dolls – not to mention the gamblers, gangsters and hustlers.


 

Appropriately for a man so associated with the city of New York, Damon Runyon was born in Manhattan. However, Runyon’s birthplace was a long way from the Big Apple. This Manhattan was in Kansas, in the US mid-west, a far cry from Broadway and Brooklyn.

Runyon was born in 1880, and his birth name was Alfred Damon Runyan. The spelling of his surname was changed, apparently accidentally, at a newspaper he worked for, but he allowed the change to stand. The name Alfred was later dropped from his byline after he arrived in New York – whether this was accidental or not isn’t  clear, but it’s perhaps significant that ‘Damon Runyon’ was essentially a creation of the city of New York.

Young Alfred Runyan left school early – by some accounts he completed only the American fourth grade, which would have made him just ten when he quit full time education. He began working on newspapers in the town of Pueblo, Colorado, where his family had settled following financial difficulty a few years after his birth. His father – previously the editor of his own newspaper – was working in journalism in Pueblo, and helped his son find work. After a short spell in the army during the Spanish-American War, he established himself as a sports reporter (specialising in baseball), working for a number of papers in Colorado. It was during this period that the spelling of his surname changed.

In 1910, Runyon moved to New York. It was in his first byline in the city, for the American that the name Damon Runyon first appeared in print. It wasn’t until 1932 that the first of the collections of short stories that would make his name appeared in print. It was called – as you might be able to guess – Guys And Dolls. The musical of the same name was adapted mainly from one of the stories within this collection, The Idyll Of Miss Sarah Brown, which tells the story of the unlikely but eventually triumphant romance between the titular missionary girl and the inveterate gamble Sky Masterson. It also features elements from another story in the same collection, called Blood Pressure, and several other Runyon short stories.

The musical makes use of the same slang employed by Runyon in his writing, where a knife is ‘shiv’, a gun an ‘equaliser’ or a ‘John Roscoe’, and a ‘pineapple’ a grenade. Some less violent examples are more recognisable, like ‘noggin’ for head, or ‘snoot’ meaning nose. Runyon was also famous for writing almost entirely in the present tense, a trait perhaps derived from his work as a journalist.

As well as the slang, Guys And Dolls contains many themes which run throughout Runyon’s work. One was gambling, whether on horse races or craps (a dice game), perhaps because he was a habitual gambler himself. Another was the explosion of crime which took place in America in the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933. During this time, the production and sale of alcohol was illegal in the United States – the unintended result of this was that a whole criminal industry sprang up to supply the taste was alcohol, which could not simply be legislated away.

It’s this world, of gangsters and gamblers, that Guys And Dolls will bring to life on our stage – along with some fabulous songs!

Guys And Dolls: Tuesday 28 June to Saturday 2 July. Book here.

 

 

 

 

 

More than just Friends

Ross & Rachel @ Assembly Box (c) Alex Brenner, no use without credit (_D3C0484)

Ross & Rachel, a new play which was a huge hit at the Edinburgh Festival, comes to The Marlowe Studio in June. Here our Studio Manager, Adam Wood, tells us why his experience with the play in Edinburgh made him determined to bring it to Canterbury.


It was the morning of my last day at the 2015 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and it’s possible I was tired, but nevertheless I didn’t expect to find myself openly weeping inside a venue that resembled nothing more closely than a shipping container. The venue for the Edinburgh run of James Fritz’s new play Ross & Rachel was not flattering:  cramped and hot, staff were handing out cups of water as the audience went in and giving instruction as to what to do if someone fainted. Still, once the play started, none of that mattered any more.

Without giving too much away, Fritz’s script calls for one performer to play both of the titular parts in his or her own accent. It’s a duologue for one, and the level of difficulty for the performer is exceptionally high. Right from the beginning, however, it was clear that Molly Vevers was equal to the task.  It was Vevers’ receiving The Stage Award for Acting Excellence that had persuaded me to see Ross & Rachel, and I was immediately glad that I did. By turns animated, reserved, impassioned and distraught, Vevers embodies both halves of the performance flawlessly. And yet this isn’t mimicry: knowledge of the characters in their television portrayal will make you laugh here or there as references crop up once in a while, but the play is more concerned with Ross & Rachel as icons of what it means to be in a long-term relationship. Frtiz’s script and Vevers’ performance are most interested in what it’s like to love someone for years, and to do so despite everything that life throws at you. Put simply, the play is about what it means to be a couple.

I’m thrilled to be able to bring Motor Theatre’s production of Ross & Rachel to The Marlowe Studio. In a season full of excellent-quality theatre, it’s a real highlight for me and a show I can’t wait to experience all over again. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you come along and watch Molly Vevers bring James Fritz’s wonderful play to life. I guarantee you’ll be deeply impressed, and there’s a chance you may shed a tear.

Ross & Rachel:The Marlowe Studio, Friday 17 June. Book here.

 

Claire Sweeney interview

 

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Claire Sweeney as Velma von Tussle

We catch up with Hairspray star Claire Sweeney ahead of the show’s visit to Canterbury next week. Since we chatted to Claire, it’s been announced that she’ll be back here at the end of August, to play Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.


When I catch up with Claire Sweeney on the phone one Thursday, between the matinee and the evening performance of Hairspray, she sounds remarkably chipper for someone who’s been on the road for several months, with several more to go: “The tour started in September, so we’re well into it. We don’t finish until May, but I’m really enjoying it.”

Part of the reason for her enjoyment is her character, Hairspray’s villainess, Velma von Tussle: “Velma’s fantastic. She’s so evil, she’s vile. She’s fat-ist, she’s everything you shouldn’t be. She’s hysterical. She’s so bad she’s funny! She’s great fun to play, I get to go completely over the top.” Her fellow cast members also come in for praise: “They’re fantastic. They’re really good fun, a really good fun cast. And they’re young and vibrant. They’re great.”

Not that Claire has time these days for socializing with her fellow cast members. When she’s not on stage she tries to spend as much time as possible with her son, Jaxon, who’s 18 months old: “I don’t go out partying, I just want to get home to my baby really. I’d rather be at home with him, although he does come on tour with me.”

Claire is probably best known to the public for her television work. She first came to prominence playing the part of Lindsey Corkhill in the Channel 4 soap opera Brookside, as well as starring roles in TV dramas such as Merseybeat and Clocking Off. She’s also presented several shows, and was a regular panelist on ITV’s Loose Women for several years. She’s also no stranger to reality TV, having appeared in the first series of both Celebrity Big Brother and Strictly Come Dancing.

But although the public may think of her as a TV star, Claire’s heart is firmly in the theatre: “I’ve done a lot of theatre, as well as the television. I love theatre, I really love it. It’s the live response, that instantaneous response that you get. The audience for Hairspray, every single night, they go absolutely crazy, it’s amazing.”

Her theatre career has certainly encompassed some iconic roles, ranging from the title role in Educating Rita to Roxie Hart in Chicago, as well as the one woman show Tell Me On A Sunday. Claire says: “I’ve been dead lucky, I’ve done some great roles. I think my favourite was probably Miss Adelaide in Guys And Dolls, that was a really special one.”

That latter role involved her working alongside Patrick Swayze, the late star of the film Dirty Dancing, of whom Claire says: “He was wonderful, absolutely amazing.” She counts working alongside him as her best on-stage experience. However, it was that role of Miss Adelaide that also led to what she regards as her worst: “I fell over in Guys And Dolls. I had pearls round my neck and they snapped and went all over the floor and I fell over them. That was probably the worst.”

Future roles she has her eye on include Mrs Johnson in Blood Brothers: “It’s just an amazing role, fantastic… I think I prefer musical theatre [to straight drama]. I started out as a singer, in clubs and things, which was great.” Outside of her career, she’s pretty content: “I’ve had my son so that’s my dream. Box ticked. I just want to carry on working and providing for him now.” (Claire split up with Jaxon’s father a few months after his birth).

For now, she’s enjoying her time touring with Hairspray: “It’s a wonderful show. People think of it as just being frothy, and fun, but people don’t realise how amazing it it, and the message it has. It’s a wonderful, wonderful show with great songs and a really strong message attached to it.” She also relishes the chance to see new places that her job brings with it: “I haven’t worked in Canterbury before, it’s going to be a first. I’m looking forward to it, seeing the town, the architecture. It’s great to explore a new place. I like travelling and getting to see different places. I worked on cruise liners when I was younger, and it’s so nice to travel and get to see different places. An international tour of Hairspray would be great!”

Hairspray: Monday 25 to Saturday 30 April. Book here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Box-set theatre

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Described by one reviewer as “Scotland’s answer to Game Of Thrones”, a unique theatrical experience will land at our theatre this spring.  The James Plays are a brand new trilogy of plays written by acclaimed playwright Rona Munro. They’re a fresh, modern – and occasionally bloody – take on the tradition of history plays.


 

When it comes to history plays, Shakespeare is the grand-daddy of them all. But The James Plays aim to challenge him – and to do for three medieval kings of Scotland what the Bard did for the Richards and Henrys of England. Rona Munro’s trilogy premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014, to huge critical and popular acclaim. As you may have guessed, it tells the stories of three Scottish kings, all called James, who ruled Scotland during the tumultuous fifteenth century.

Let’s be honest: this may all sound a little obscure. But these plays are vivid and exhilarating, with The Daily Telegraph going so far as to describe them as “better than Shakespeare”. Although they can be enjoyed individually, together they are a unique insight into one country’s development at a key moment in its history. And, as such, the producers have come up with an unusual way of presenting them.

Instead of the conventional performance schedule of a week of evening performances, perhaps with a matinee or two added, the plays are performed over the course of just one day, with audiences at each venue having two opportunities to catch the entire trilogy. It’s described as the theatrical equivalent of watching a DVD box-set all in one go.

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In Canterbury, the plays will be performed on Friday and Saturday, with performances at 11am, 3pm and 7:30pm on each day. As well as referencing the modern era of box-sets, this schedule harks back to the origins of theatre in Britain, when mystery plays would have been performed as cycles, spread out across a whole day. You can choose to buy tickets for just one or two of the plays – but if you book for all three you’ll get 10% off.

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If you want to get even more involved in the action, a limited number of seats are available actually on the stage itself. Although there’s no actual audience participation as such, (insert your own relief or disappointment here, depending on your view of such things) the on-stage audience are used to represent the king’s court. Talk about being at the heart of the action!

The James Plays have the ambitious aim of showing the birth of a nation on stage. Better than Shakespeare? That, you will have to decide for yourself…

You can book here: James I James II James III