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Bram and the Guv’nor: ‘Who knew archives could be so much fun?’

In the week of 15-21 May, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust was pleased to host a series of performances of Bram and the Guv’nor, a play by Jefny Ashcroft and directed by Jonathan Collings, based on the RSC’s Bram Stoker Collection. This production took place as part of the Arts Council funded project, Arts Friendly Archives, which is a ‘unique cultural intervention’ marrying performance, audience development and archives.

Annette Ormanczyk

Playwright and Project Manager Jefny Ashcroft ‘s original play was inspired by items from the RSC’s Bram Stoker Collection, which is managed by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. These materials were collected by Stoker himself during his time as Business Manager at London’s Lyceum Theatre, and include the most fascinating material relating to the world of late Victorian theatre, and the work of the great Shakespearean actor, Sir Henry Irving, and his leading lady, Ellen Terry.

The archives inspired a most unique and compelling production. Bram Stoker (David Reakes), at once hopeful and uncertain, debated with Ellen Terry (Jo Price) the prospect of Henry Irving playing the Count in a future production of Dracula. His confidence in the relevance and  appeal of his work was made quite apparent, and the audience was immediately drawn in to the question of whether Irving would agree. Irving (Barrie Palmer) kept them in suspense until the very end ... and the question on the lips of many visitors was whether he ever did go on to play the Count. It was high-drama, and especially on Saturday, when Bram was unexpectedly detained outside Stratford... but the show did go on as the SBT’s very own Louis Osborne stepped into his shoes and delivered a wonderful performance on less than an hour’s notice!

Terry and Stoker
Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker discuss Lyceum life and Stoker’s plans for Dracula. Photo credit: David Ashcroft
Bram and Irving
Stoker sees Irving as the perfect Count. Photo credit: David Ashcroft

The production was accompanied by a display of material from the Bram Stoker Collection, which broadly focused on the context of the events in the play. The collection is full of the public and the personal. Posters, playbills and articles about famous Lyceum productions rub shoulders with personal correspondence, photographs, drawings and souvenirs. Stoker was certainly a voracious collector and, as a result, Jefny and the Collections team found it a challenge to contain the display. Some highlights available for the public to view included the 1897 playbill for Dracula and the Undead, a letter from Oscar Wilde to Stoker, photographs of Ellen Terry at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, and a souvenir scroll from the banquet held to celebrate Ellen Terry's theatrical jubilee in 1906.

Anne Hathaway
PC 83.6 Ellen Terry at Anne Hathaway's Cottage, 1902. The photograph was taken by Terry's daughter, Edith Craig. Also pictured are artist Pamela Coleman Smith, Lindsay Jardine, Edith's close friend, and the writer and women's rights activist, Christabel Marshall.
Oscar Wilde
RL2/7/259 Oscar Wilde’s letter to Bram Stoker, 26 March 1889

Visitors- many of them seeing archives  at the SBT for the first time- certainly seemed impressed with the material on display, with one Australian visitor remarking that he hadn’t known ‘archives could be so much fun!’ In this respect, it looks as though the Arts- Friendly Archives initiative helped to showcase this special collection in a unique and engaging light. 

Archive display
Visitors acquaint themselves with archival material from the RSC’s Bram Stoker Collection. Photo credit: David Ashcroft

We welcome anyone who is interested in the Bram Stoker Collection (or indeed any aspect of local, family or performance history) to visit our Reading Room and discover some of our treasures for themselves. Our contact details and opening hours can be found here: https://www.shakespeare.org.uk/visit/plan-your-visit/reading-room/

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