A lady fit for statuary, famed British social reformer, Eglantyne Jebb, came alive in an animated portrait crafted by actress Anne Chamberlain in her unique one woman show, Eglantyne, premiering at Melbourne’s Ripponlea House.
Born into a wealthy British family with a strong social conscience, she was an early twentieth century educator, sociologist, public speaker and writer who, with her sister Dorothy, set up the Save The Children relief charity in 1919, at a time when women barely possessed the right to vote. The list of achievements this woman packs into one lifetime will astound you so be prepared to be amazed! A trailblazer in many domains, this clever piece of writing and performance vividly restores her legacy to public minds once more.
An Oxford University graduate, her story reads like a heroine’s fit for universal fame. That she is so little known tells us much about the cultural invisibility of significant women but here this is righted- Chamberlain’s labour of love allows both the public and the personal aspects of Eglantyne’s life to emerge, fleshing out the full woman. Through her rich and detailed research, in the foundation’s archives and at the Jebb family home, the compelling story of its founder is reborn, the play containing direct quotes from her private letters, articles, speeches and diary entries. More will follow in the run up to the May 2019 centenary of the birth of her charity.
Chamberlain’s play has it all. She shows Jebb’s strong ties to family and mixing in elite social circles which enabled an awakening political awareness after graduation. Early career roles inside welfare organisations taught how to administer charitable foundations. She was mentored by some of Britain’s best reform agents. She engaged in scientific research and published her findings. She was sent on foreign missions where she witnessed firsthand the atrocities of war. Unmarried and childless, she gave her life to her causes, the last of which culminated in her formulating a draft for children’s rights in Geneva, later adopted by the League of Nations as The Declarations of the Rights of the Child in 1924.
An accomplished and highly skilled actor, Chamberlain is compelling to watch. She holds the audience in her hands, working the room with such alacrity, we get a visceral sense of the intuitive intellectual mastery her subject possessed. With a delivery that is strong, colourful, and sympathetic, it doesn’t shy away from the periodically darker episodes of Jebb’s life, and inserts moments of levity and tongue-in-cheek asides on the state of world politics today.
Chamberlain weaves in her own New Zealand life story which parallels our subject’s, in rural childhoods, romantic disappointments, and life turning points. Her evocative costumes date back to the Edwardian era, with original ladies’ coat and black leather shoes. She moves energetically about, walking, talking, writing and thinking aloud just as Eglantyne herself must have with her unstoppable dynamism and determined mien. A simple prop of a writing desk evoke the offices both Jebb sisters planned their activism from and at times we are situated inside the halls she lectured from.
Highlights in the life of this courageous lady include her arrest in Trafalgar Square protesting the famine in Eastern Europe against the Allies economic blockade at the end of WWI. The Jebb women were politically astute, inflamed by a Christian commitment to speak out against punitive economic policy that hurt the most innocent – the world’s children.
Eglantine’s attention-grabbing innovations sent the world reaching into its pockets. She was the first to use real life examples of suffering via the new mediums of film and photography to shock the public into sympathy via her posters, advertisements and pamphlets. Through her dynamic interventions and business acuity in public life, she reinvented the public fundraising model, adopted worldwide immediately after.
The life story of an seminal achiever, the loving depiction is booked for a return to the Royal Albert Hall in 2019, where the fund began. Do not miss seeing this account of the life of a monumental woman told with such authenticity, it were as if Eglantyne herself were in the room!
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold and non-traditional performance platforms. On the street or in the box seat, she looks for quality works that push the envelope.
Eglantyne shows 24-25 August, 2pm & 6.30 pm, Thursday & Friday, (75 min.s) at Ripponlea Historic House ballroom. Book tickets here. The venue is partly accessible.
Keep up to date with future tour dates for this show here.
Disclosure: The Plus Ones were guests of Ms Chamberlain Presents.
Image credit: Anne Chamberlain