Staging Napoleonic Theatre
Benefiting from AHRC follow-on funding for 12 months (2016-17) to engage with new audiences, Dr Katherine Astbury’s Napoleonic theatre project team have been working with theatre practitioners and musicians on workshops to further our understanding of the performance of theatre during the period, using the manuscript scores of melodramas to reproduce the music that would have accompanied the speech and action to better understand the relationship between form and content. The project culminated in two performances, one a collaboration with the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond and the other with English Heritage at Portchester Castle.
In Richmond, the project team ran a public workshop to locals interested in taking part in a community performance of Pixerécourt's La Forteresse du Danube (1805) in translation. The play was a ‘performance in a week’ and was put on as part of the town’s Georgian Festival in August 2017. The melodrama had a professional director, Sarah Wynne Kordas, as well as a professional orchestra, led by music historian, professional violinist and project postdoc Dr Diane Tisdall. This was an exciting opportunity for local amateur actors as well as a great night out for local audiences.
The project team also worked with the curators, historians and reinterpretation manager at Portchester Castle, an English Heritage property where French prisoners of war performed theatre to entertain not just themselves but also the local population during the Napoleonic wars.
English Heritage launched a reinterpretation of the site in July 2017 and installed a stage in the basement of the Keep where the plays were originally put on to give visitors an idea of the prisoners' theatre.
Thanks to the advice and guidance of the project team, the historical interpretation company Past Pleasures performed one of the prisoners' own plays, a melodrama entitled Roseliska, to a local audience. The performance included a score composed for the play by the project postdoctoral researchers Diane Tisdall, who also acted as musical director. She used published music from one of the prisoners and manuscript scores from Parisian melodramas of the time to add to the authenticity of the production.
English Heritage will benefit from the research as they look to reinterpret the Keep at Portchester Castle as part of their renewal of displays and exhibits at the site. This has resulted in an improved exhibition space informed by the most recent research into the theatricals of the prisoners of war and increased interest in the castle through the performance of one of the plays written by French prisoners of war while at the Castle in 1810. The research has the potential to make a significant difference to the profile of Portchester Castle and its visitor numbers. The project team ran melodrama workshops at the Castle’s annual Family weekend in August 2017 and will be running a 6th-form drama day in the Keep at the end of September 2017, working closely with the English Heritage Education team to allow the Castle to expand the topics covered in its schools work.
This research project has enhanced the UK's cultural enrichment, by giving audiences access to a theatrical form that dominated worldwide at the start of the 19th century - melodrama - but which has no continuous performance tradition. It has increased public awareness of this forgotten theatrical form and also of the situation of French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic conflicts.
In addition, the longer term cultural and socio-economic benefits continue to be realised as subsequent visitors benefit from access to the recorded performance material.