Review comments about this production
"an extraordinarily inventive production...Lucy Hayton takes on the role with an authority that you might expect from an old girl of Roedean School... Some good humour, too, comes out in her relationship with the rustic Keith Railton as the two main characters...here’s to a welcome return to some Criterion stalwarts who’ll be treading the boards again one of these days" Chris Arnot
"An ingenious combination of pre-recorded scenes, state-of-the-art technology and precisely calibrated acting makes the re-creation of this drama onto our small screens almost as extraordinary as the discovery of the skeleton of King Redwaeld at Sutton Hoo back in the 1930s." Barbara Goulden, Elementarywhatson.
"...lockdown has forced many changes upon us...and here the techies at the Criterion shine. Using split screen technology and a series of picturesque backdrops filmed on domestic equipment and presented on a YouTube platform they evoke a dialogue between the two main characters that allows their relationship to develop... An enjoyable and moving account of a hugely important moment in the history of Britain... and the eternal drama of friendship that underpinned it." Nick Le Mesurier, Leamington Courier
Read the full reviews here.
"I really enjoyed this production. The limitations of lockdown preparation and presentation were turned into positive advantages."
"I shall no longer see the Sutton Hoo treasure as a set of artefacts and want to find out more about Edith."
"In a Covid-19 world, live theatre will have an even more precarious future. What you have done with this production shows a way forward".
About the play
‘Edith in the Beginning’ was originally commissioned by Stuff of Dreams theatre company for the National Trust and researched and written by Karen Forbes.
The play explores the life of Edith Pretty, the woman responsible for the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon treasure, which many consider to be one of the greatest archaeological finds in British history. However, there is so much more to the story of this remarkable woman. Karen Forbes’ play shines a light on Edith’s heroic wartime endeavours, her marriage to Frank Pretty, and her fond alliance with Ipswich Museum archaeologist, Basil Brown. Most intriguing is her decision to decline a CBE - the reason for which remains a mystery to this day.
The production was originally staged outdoors at the National Trust Sutton Hoo site in August 2019 on the porch of Tranmer House, Edith Pretty’s former home. The play was subsequently performed in November 2019 in partnership with Ipswich Museum and Eastern Angles at the Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich.
In May 2020, Karen, who is a longstanding Criterion Company Member, offered the play as one of our lockdown virtual play readings. Following the very successful reading, Karen generously offered us the play rights-free in order to allow us to experiment with the online form. Over June, July and August, with Anne-marie Greene as Director working with Karen as an integral part of the creative team, we rehearsed and live-recorded the play from our home spaces using Zoom and then Steve Brown worked tirelessly to edit the scenes into a film.
In line with our EDI policy, we undertake an EDI impact assessment of all our artistic programming. 'Edith In the Beginning' by Karen Forbes does not have any specific diversity message at its centre. The play is based around real life historical people with confirmed gender and ethnic identities. It is understandable if casting choices are made with these specific identities in mind although within the performance there is space for casting to be race/ethnicity, gender and age flexible.
The Making of ‘Edith in the Beginning’: Confessions of a Zoom Creative Team
One of the very few positive things about lockdown has been the way it has forced us to try new ways of doing things and finding innovative ways to make theatre amidst the pandemic has certainly been no exception. After a successful online reading of her play as part of our lockdown play reading group, Karen Forbes generously offered us the play rights-free as a creative opportunity to try out the online form. All this was very exciting, but, how to start and how to make it all work?
Some things about the creative process were very similar to the way we might usually do things ...
Find a director ... Tick! ... I jumped at the chance to have a go, and was especially glad to have Karen there along the way as Assistant Director.
Cast the production ... Tick! ... Luckily we had some fabulous actors at the play reading who were keen to take up the challenge.
Find a production team ... Tick! We had a film editor, sound designer, props and wardrobe team.
But pretty much everything else about the production has been quite a different experience.
In the middle of deepest darkest lockdown, and with two of the cast shielding, we could not meet at all except occasionally outside front doors, and then only individually and of course always social distanced. So all rehearsals were conducted on Zoom. As a massive positive, this did mean though that Lucy Hayton could join us from London as part of the production, in a way she never would have been able to conventionally. We started in late June 2020 with two weeks of rehearsals.
Scenes were played out through the Zoom boxes, the directors turning off their camera and then coming back in to give notes. Actors had to interact though their Zoom screens and get used to reacting to each other at a distance. Hiding the self-view became important for some actors so that one did not have to also see oneself on the screen-another distraction! All very strange.
We had to record the scenes to be able to put them together in the finished film. But, we had to do this from separate locations, from each person’s home space with their own domestic computer and webcam equipment. We purchased a green screen and light set up and borrowed another from Steve Brown. One was posted to Lucy in London, and the other was shared between the Coventry-based cast-as one person’s recordings were completed, the kit was passed onto the next.
We started recording the scenes in mid-July. Actors had to be the whole production team themselves- get into costume and makeup and set up their green screen, lights, mics, and recording software. Tricky things involved ensuring each person’s set-up worked, getting sound levels, positioning of actors to match up with each other and of course, making sure that the record button was pressed.
The timelapse video accompanying Lucy’s reflection captures the hard work this all took. As director, I had to work out a notation technique for recording different ‘takes’, counting down beginning of scenes, noting start and finish and detailing moments when lines were fluffed or actors went out of shot. Actors had to get used to stopping if a mistake was made and returning to a point in the script where an editing cut could be made.
Props and Costume
Costumes were made and sourced by Pam Coleman, including Helen Wither’s beautiful Anglo-Saxon garb. Sally Patalong and Erica and Bill Young were sent a list of props to put together, some of which were also creative challenges including an archaeological find, covered in mud. For scenes involving two people, duplicate props had to be sourced so that they could appear in both scenes in the separate houses! As director, part of my role was boxing up and getting props delivered to actors, including by post for Lucy in London. On another occasion I sat in Coventry watching Lucy in London change into a number of outfits, making selections for different scenes.
Once all the scenes were recorded, we handed over to Steve Brown, film editor and sound designer Paul Forey. Doubtlessly, the biggest job then started. The process of editing together a full two acts of scenes, plus voice overs, images and music is huge. Add to this the fact that what had to be edited together were scenes recorded from many actors’ individual computers, with the varying quality of sound and visuals that accompanied this.
Remember, we only had people’s domestic kit to produce this. In order to make it look like actors were in the same space, backgrounds also had to be added in to each scene. These backgrounds were constructed from on location photographs taken around Coventry by Steve as well as some shots down at Sutton Hoo taken by my mate Denis who lives in Norfolk.
Rendering even small scenes can take many tens of hours to process, and Steve only had a domestic computer to do the processing on. All of this increases the time it took to put this together. We can only thank Steve Brown for his painstaking and tireless work on this project over many, many weeks.
The Final Production
We are so proud of what we were able to achieve over lockdown. It has been such an important learning experience and a valuable upskilling opportunity. Filmed and livestream versions of our plays are likely to be an important part of our offering going forward and Edith has given us space to try things out.
We do hope that you enjoyed the story of Edith Pretty and our piece of theatrical experimentation, and appreciate the huge amount of hard work that has gone into this project and the bravery and can-do attitude of everyone involved.
Anne-marie Greene, Director.
Reflections from Karen Forbes: Playwright and Assistant Director
Edith - In the Beginning, my second play as a new writer, was originally a site-specific, outdoor commission by STUFF of DREAMS theatre company and the National Trust, to commemorate eighty years since the discovery of the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon burial ship in Suffolk. Widowed landowner Edith Pretty subsequently donated the treasure find to the nation. It remains one of the most valuable and culturally significant discoveries of all times, providing archaeological evidence which changed our understanding of early seventh century English history.
At the heart of the play, set in class-rigid 1930s England, is a very human story about the unusual friendship between self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown and his employer Edith, a remarkable, educated woman in her own right, who served with the Red Cross in WW1 and became a first-time mother at 47.
As Lockdown began, I adapted the script to accommodate an indoor setting – a far cry from the gloriously hot August weekend in 2019, set on the porch of Tranmer House, in Suffolk overlooking the original burial mounds – ever mindful of the restrictions of cast members rehearsing online within the confines of their own homes. The focus moved from visually elaborate and atmospheric spectacle to a more intimate ‘up-close-and personal’ perspective which really brings the dialogue, poetry and song alive. I am used to being closely involved in the rehearsal process, so working with Anne-marie (Director) and our delightful company of actors, sound, lighting and editing team became a crucial aspect of developing the production collaboratively.
I’m pleasantly surprised how relatively easy it was for us to change our thinking and adapt to weekly rehearsals online in people’s homes, closely replicating the schedule which would normally have taken place in the theatre. There were times when we had to contend with failing technology (not to mention head colds, DIY props, cumbersome furniture and ‘green screens’!), but one advantage was me being able to contribute from Jersey and Lucy Hayton from London, which otherwise could not have happened. Both of us were able to renew our contact with the Criterion and even our Covid-shielding local compatriots could also join us.
I’m so proud to share the success of this new venture, to renew contact with the Criterion where I ‘cut my teeth’ in all things theatrical during my undergrad days at Warwick university. Thankyou for your patience, your wonderful sense of humour, for your willingness to experiment, for daring to take a risk, determined that we would find a way to continue our mutual love of theatre and the stage. Heartfelt thanks for making this happen and for giving Edith another life despite Covid.
Reflections from Lucy Hayton (Edith Pretty)
Performing a play online in the midst of a global pandemic is rather odd. You have sole responsibility for your hair and make-up (terrifying). You have to prepare all your props, set up the tech and turn over your tiny flat into a make-shift studio. There is no audience, no bar, no opening night and no set strike. Some things however, do remain the same. The endless line learning, the panic, the fleeting regret and the laughter. Whilst I would always prefer the ‘in-real-life’ experience of making a play, for me this was a real blessing in dark times.
It demonstrated the ingenuity and determination of a creative community and reassured me that the impulse to make and experience live theatre, is too strong to quietly fade away.
My one piece of advice for those of you considering undertaking a zoom play? Please, for the love of god, make sure you press record!
Watch a timelapse clip of Lucy recording a scene from the play in August here
Reflections from Keith Railton (Basil Brown)
I’ve been involved in theatre productions for over sixty years but nothing that I had done before prepared me for the ‘Edith Experience’. Never before have I had to create the set in my own front bedroom, rig up a camera, lighting and sound, have costume and props left at my front door and work closely with an actor who was sitting nearly 100 miles away. But I stumbled through, experiencing enjoyment, fulfilment, and stress along the way and, when we’d finished, I discovered I’d actually learnt a lot of new skills.
Throughout the rollercoaster journey my hand was held by a talented cast, writer, director, and a very supportive crew. It was certainly an experience I’ll never forget. I’ve no idea what the end product will be like, but at least we gave it a go. I hope that our audiences will enjoy it. And as for me – well, who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
Reflections from Helen Withers (Queen Redwaeld)
I thoroughly enjoyed the Criterion Read of “Edith in the Beginning” and was delighted when I was asked to play the Anglo Saxon Queen. It is a beautifully written scene which allows rapport and ultimately affection between two women who were separated by hundreds of years yet united in their loss. It was so enjoyable to work, albeit at a distance, with Lucy while being supported by Anne-marie and Karen. I did learn new skills.
With Steve Brown’s guidance I was able to erect a screen and lights into my front room to create a studio (much to the amusement of my neighbours who did wonder what I was up to!) and was grateful to the various chauffeurs who transported the equipment between Keith and myself as we were both in Lockdown. Special thanks to the ever wonderful Pam for providing me with a Queenly costume and to Gareth for his reassurance when I expressed concern about singing the solo lament “It’s alright, Mum” he said, “I can always use Pitch Correction!”.
Reflections from the Audience
We watched Edith last night. When we lived in Coventry we used to come along to the Criterion, and were always impressed by the sheer professionalism of the productions. You may be in the 'am-dram' category, but you always punch well above your weight. Edith was no exception. In a Covid-19 world, live theatre will have an even more precarious future. What you have done with this production shows a way forward. I've watched some 'socially distanced' on-line productions (notably the Persians, from Epidavros) and also some improv and some 'live' concerts. Edith was quite innovative and shows what can be done on what I imagine was quite a small budget. Obviously there were technical hurdles, but on the whole it was remarkably well done. The position of the 'heads' , the focus, did move from scene to scene, especially noticeable when two screens were side by side. Hard to adjust, but a little disconcerting. The green screen worked well, with hardly any 'artefacts', except in the scene with Basil and his seed trays. I don't know whether this was to do with our set-up (mirroring to our tv from my iPhone), or was intrinsic. The use of archive photographs was good (was the rider's head deliberately out of frame?) and following so soon after Remembrance Day added a poignancy. And it's an interesting story which spurs me to visit Suffolk sometime. Well done. Good to see that you are rising to the challenge and producing excellent work (as usual!).
Congratulations are in order - to the playwright and to the whole team! I really enjoyed this production. The limitations of lockdown preparation and presentation were turned into positive advantages, notably of course the flashbacks to WWI. I shall no longer see the Sutton Hoo treasure as a set of artefacts and want to find out more about Edith.
I enjoyed this performance and found it to be very atmospheric and moving. This was quite a feat as I was watching on my Iphone. Having visited Sutton Hoo last year, the production was indeed more interesting, because of having visited the house and the barrows first hand. Thank you for an enjoyable experience, and a remarkable achievement, given the current constraints.
Thoroughly enjoyed it. Congratulations to all involved in making the production under Covid conditions.
Congratulations! A considerable achievement by the whole team.
Thoroughly enjoyed it. Congratulations to all involved in making the production under Covid conditions.
Congratulations! A considerable achievement by the whole team.
We wanted to say how much we enjoyed it. Very moving and a great production.
Many congratulations. Well done on the Suffolk accent Basil – I could hear my Dad speaking! Especially about the blessed rabbits!
Looked good and lovely believable performances. You created real people.
You did it! We’ve watched it twice. How did you manage it?
Another memorable one for the Criterion. All credit to everyone involved.
Really well put together and wonderful individual performances.
Review by Chris Arnot
Act one, scene one: enter Keith Railton stage right. Or left? Who cares as long as his entrance takes you back to pre-viral times?Quite long times back indeed. Keith has trodden the boards at the Criterion for many a year.
On this occasion he’s not on stage, however. He’s in a country churchyard in East Anglia in the role of farmer-turned-archaeologist Basil Brown. After removing his flat cap, he is laying flowers on the grave of the recently deceased Edith Pretty, the widowed landowner who had employed him to unearth invaluable Anglo-Saxon treasures from the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo.
(Time for a reality check, perhaps. Keith was, in fact, at home in Earlsdon after making himself up, dressing himself up and filming himself up in the front bedroom. The other actors in this extraordinarily inventive production were doing much the same in their own homes.)
Suitably socially distanced, they inter-act on screen in little boxes. Which sounds a bit limited and claustrophobic.
Far from it. Under Anne-marie Greene’s direction, we are not only taken into a real country churchyard but also an expansive country estate with a distinctive rural landscape around it.
At one point we’re also back on the battlefields of the Western Front where Edith served as a Red Cross nurse and her late husband Frank was an army captain. The filming becomes grey at this point – a touching combination of horrific photographs and poetic imagery.
What Wilfred Owen called “war and the pity of war” is a recurring theme of the production. After all, the digging up of invaders’ remains takes place in the summer of 1938 as the second worldwide conflict of the 20th century is about to unfold?
Edith Pretty was not far off 60 when she died in 1942. Lucy Hayton looks nowhere near that age. But she takes on the role with an authority that you might expect from an old girl of Roedean School -- albeit one tinged with sad reflectiveness of a war-time nurse. Some good humour, too, comes out in her relationship with the rustic Railton as the two main characters.
Jon Elves makes the most of his cameo role as a judge with a distinctive speech impediment. And Helen Withers makes a somewhat surreal appearance as Queen Raedwaeld, manifesting herself at Mrs Pretty’s mansion and calling for “a horn of sac”. Instead she has to settle for a dry sherry.
Cheers, Queen R. And here’s to a welcome return to some Criterion stalwarts who’ll be treading the boards again one of these days. Or nights. Soon, we hope, in post-vaccine-altimes.
Review by Barbara Goulden
If you know you're watching too much television during lockdown then why not take a break and book seats in your own armchairs for the latest offering from the Criterion?
Screening is only available until next Friday (Nov 27) although, once downloaded, you can watch this play more than once. And may well want to as there's a lot to take in. Not least the true story that culminated in the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon king, his 80 foot ship and a hoard of golden treasure that lay undisturbed on Suffolk farmland for more than 1,000 years.
An ingenious combination of pre-recorded scenes, state-of-the-art technology and precisely calibrated acting makes the re-creation of this drama onto our small screens almost as extraordinary as the discovery of the skeleton of King Redwaeld at Sutton Hoo back in the 1930s. And that's where the story starts with Lucy Hayton taking on the role of widow Edith Pretty, who engages self-taught archaeologist Basil Brown to excavate the mysterious mounds surrounding her manor house. In a variety of extremely stylish vintage dresses, we learn Edith's story, then learn of her late husband's experiences during the First World War.
Meanwhile, Keith Railton presents Basil as the choleric, flat-capped, flat-footed "man with a plan" who brooks no interference from outsiders...least of all those who've been to university. There are class divisions, as there would have been at the time. But I enjoyed Anne-marie Greene's assured direction and the clever camerawork that allowed Basil and Edith to exchange maps and mugs of tea despite physically standing in rooms many miles apart. But even Basil can't envisage the fantasy element of this great story as it seems his disturbance of the land also unearths a ghostly visitation from the ancient king's queen... who offers Edith advice but really can't get her head round this Christianity business. Few Criterion regulars will be surprised to see Helen Withers having great fun with his part. Then there's Jon Elves, at the coroner's inquest, who decides to give himself a wonderful lisp as he examines the "tweasures" that will in truth set off earthquakes throughout the archaeological world.
This is a lyrical slice of nostalgia that inevitably at times lacks the vitality of a live performance. For all that it is ultimately satisfying and well-worth downloading a ticket.
Review by Nick Le Mesurier
The Anglo Saxon treasures discovered at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk in 1939 were some of the most importantarchaeological findings ever found, almost as famous perhaps as the tomb of Tutankhamun and the Viking burials in Scandinavia. They proved that the Anglo Saxons were a sophisticated people capable of creating astonishing works of beauty and intricacy in gold and silver. Their discovery came at a time when Britain’s morale urgently needed boosting, and it served as valuable propaganda as well as a source of scientific and historical knowledge.
Behind the science lay another story, that of a remarkable friendship, which Edith in the Beginning tastefully explores. The owner of the land, Edith Pretty (Lucy Hyton) was already interested in archaeology. Having been recently widowed she preferred the explorations on her land of thirteen mounds, long suspected of containing ancient artefacts, to be conducted in privacy. Instead of a team of professionals, she hired Basil Brown (Keith Railton), a local man with an amateur’s passion for his subject and a wealth of self-acquired knowledge. But Basil is a curmudgeonly old soul, intent on conducting investigations his own way, at his own pace. In a rich Suffolk burr he warns Mrs Pretty there may be something hidden there, or there may be nothing.
We know now that there was a lot, an enormous horde of priceless treasures buried along with their owner, King Raedwald, a 7th century king, in a longship, most of which was recovered. But it’s the human drama that is at stake here. At first Basil and Edith Pretty do not much like each other, but a gradual respect emerges, driven in part by the relationship between her young son Robert (not voiced) and the childless old man. The voice of Edith’s dead husband, Frank (Ted McGowan) cuts through the tale in the form of letters he wrote from the front line in WW1, beautiful letters of love for the men under his command and for the land he had left behind. Also visiting the scene is the ghost of Queen Raedwald (Helen Withers), herself widowed and able to share the wisdom of an older woman across the ages and bring comfort to the grieving Edith.
Normally the technicians are the backroom boys and girls in a play, serving quietly behind the scenes and only visible if things go wrong. But lockdown has forced many changes upon us, not least the importance of video as a primary medium, and here the techies at the Criterion, particularly Steve Brown, film editor and Paul Forey, sound designer, as well as director Anne Marie Greene, shine. Using split screen technology and a series of picturesque backdrops filmed on domestic equipment and presented on a YouTube platform, they evoke a dialogue between the two main characters that allows their relationship to develop. It has its limitations, in that each character is parenthesised in a box on screen speaking to the other across a divide that is almost, but not quite, bridged. The relationship comes across as a little strained. But such it was in the actual drama, for each was a very different character, seemingly with little in common with the other, save their love of the land and what it contained and meant.
It is a strange experience watching a play that was performed with the actors in lockdown miles apart. It takes on many of the demands of film, particularly the emphasis on voice and facial expressions, and the importance of good editing. The form lends itself to a reflective sort of drama, which this play is, rather than one where action, excitement and movement are the keys, and a company has to find new ways of creating tension to hold the audience’s attention. The script was adapted to meet the new format by Karen Forbes and given free of charge. I found the pace here a little too steady, the inner and outer conflicts implied as much as evoked. But the use of technology, though not as slick as might be expected on tv or film, was effective and enhanced the intimacy between two characters exploring new roles for themselves.
The only other qualm I have is with the character of the Coroner (Jon Elves) which was played to a satirical effect that wasn’t warranted, to my mind. It was a moment of comedy that seemed slightly misplaced.
But in every other respect this is an enjoyable and moving account of a hugely important moment in the history of Britain, both ancient and modern, and the eternal drama of friendship that underpinned it.