Rhondda Rips It Up! The dress rehearsal - only 1 more sleep until opening night!

Photo by Jane Hobson

Photo by Jane Hobson

On Monday the creative team gathered for the dress rehearsal of Rhondda Rips it Up! and I have to say it was a truly joyous occasion.  For Elena and I this is the moment we see our work come to fruition and director Caroline Clegg has created a truly incredible production which has exceeded all our expectations. Madeleine Shaw has embraced the role of Margaret and showed herself to be a consummate leading lady. She has absolutely captured the essence of Margaret; her feisty indomitability and her girlish sense of fun. Lesley Garrett was a super star as always and, as the Emcee, had us all in stitches. In fact it was great to see the audience reaction to the piece as one of things I had been concerned about was the balance between pathos and comedy and judging from the feedback, it certainly felt as though we had got it right.

It was equally wonderful to see the ladies chorus front and centre and show-casing skills and versatility that they do not normally get the opportunity to display. This opera was specifically written for this ladies chorus and their energy and enthusiasm was evident throughout. 

It was also the first time we got to meet the community chorus and see them integrated into the production. The moments where they rose from their seats and their voices joined with that of the WNO chorus were incredibly moving. 

Photo by Jane Hobson

Photo by Jane Hobson

The whole process has been the most harmonious and collaborative in all my experience. There has been a strong solidarity and ‘can-do’ attitude from start to finish and everyone has supported one another in a way that you don’t always see in every rehearsal process. I wonder whether it was because we have had an all-female creative team and company?...

Margaret's part in the suffrage movement

In many ways it was inevitable that Margaret should become a suffragette, born, as she was, into a family of political animals whose liberal views were ahead of their time. One of her earliest dreams as a child was to become Prime Minister and her liberal, gender-blind upbringing allowed her the scope to entertain such aspirations. Her mother, Sybil Thomas and her Aunt Lottie had both been involved in local Liberal Associations and her father, D.A. Thomas was an MP.  Her second cousin, Florence Haig was one of the first women to be imprisoned for suffrage militancy and having spent six weeks in Holloway prison she came to Margaret’s family home in Llanwern to recuperate.   Margaret’s own autobiography makes reference to this visit and it is clear that she was inspired by this rebellious and radical woman.

This encounter with her cousin, and perhaps also her impending nuptials, were what motivated her to attend the famous demonstration in Hyde Park on 21st June 1908 which saw vast numbers of suffragettes, from all over the country, gather in solidarity.

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The experience transformed Margaret and shaped the person she was to become.  In her autobiography she recounts the thrill of the event which “made us feel that we were part of life, not just outside watching it”.  It was not long after this that she joined the WSPU and became Secretary for the newly formed Newport Branch.  Although her mother, Sybil was more circumspect in her attitude to women’s suffrage, tending more towards the law-abiding and moderate Suffragist persuasion, she did not temper Margaret’s more militant tendencies and regularly held suffrage garden parties at Llanwern.

Her tireless efforts during the war, particularly her role in recruiting for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps kept her at the forefront of women’s emancipation and it was no doubt these efforts, as well as the efforts of many other women up and down the country, that finally saw Parliament, under the leadership of Lloyd George, introduce the Representation of the People Act of 1918.  This Act allowed women of property over the age of thirty the right to vote, and while it still fell significantly short of the ultimate goal, it was at least a step in the right direction.

If anything, this galvanised Margaret to redouble her efforts and she continued to campaign tirelessly, leveraging the editorial power she wielded as the founder of the increasingly influential magazine Time and Tide.  As she trenchantly comments in the 1921 January issue, “It is a far cry yet to the end of the road, and our present position is not yet altogether a satisfactory one from the point of view of the country as a whole.  We have, as a fact, achieved a half-way position, and that is never a position which makes for stability.” 

It would be another 7 years before the campaign could come to end, but end it finally did on 2nd July 1928 when the Equal Franchise Bill was finally passed.  For the little girl who once dreamed of being Prime Minister this certainly marked the final vindication, but not the end of her work….

Check in with the next instalment to learn more about Lady Rhondda and the creation of the opera.  In the next blog I will be exploring the tradition of the Male Impersonator in Music Hall; a concept that is central to the writing, the music and the production.

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Prison and hunger strike inevitably followed and she spent a miserable week in Usk prison.  It would have been longer had not her family been compelled to pay the fine in order to release her; her father’s position in Parliament meant that her incarceration could cause an undesirable scandal.

Disappointed but undeterred Margaret continued to press the cause of women’s suffrage until the outbreak of World War 1.  At this point, the Newport Branch of the WSPU suspended all activities, as did almost all other suffragette groups, for the duration of the war.  Margaret, however, was a canny woman.  She recognised the huge opportunity that the war afforded women. With the men away at war, it was up to women to fill their roles and Margaret made sure that they made the most of this.  As she herself said, “I think the war, awful as it has been, did a wonderful thing for women.  It brought about a revolution for them which one may well imagine centuries might have otherwise been needed to encompass.” 

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Musical influences and inspiration in Rhondda Rips it Up!

When David Pountney set the brief for Rhondda Rips it Up! back in 2016, one of his main stipulations was that the piece should not be a contemporary opera in the usual sense, but should rather hark back to the genres of music hall, vaudeville and operetta. He was also keen that we include some of the songs and anthems from the period. As such, Elena and I had great fun researching the music and traditions. Since we had decided that our Emcee character would be based upon the legendary Male Impersonator, Vesta Tilley, she was an obvious place to start:

One of Vesta Tilley’s most famous acts was Burlington Bertie and although we could not find a recording of her singing this number, another Male Impersonator, Ella Shields, gives a fabulous rendition:

While scouring recordings of music hall and vaudeville, we stumbled upon an extraordinary number called My Girl’s Pussy which really does have to be heard to be believed. Although written slightly later than the period in which Rhondda is set, we felt it would be perfect for the musical entertainment on board the Lusitania ship which Margaret and her father took on their return from America. I texted David Pountney and sent him the link asking; “do we dare to include this saucy music-hall gem?”  Needless to say he replied immediately with a resounding “YES!”.

Elena and I were also very keen to use some of the original suffragette anthems and of course this meant including Ethyl Smyth’s famous The March of the Women.  In Rhondda Rips it Up!, Margaret leads the ladies of Newport in a rousing chorus of this song as they march to their first rally:

While I was writing, I spent a lot of time looking at the libretti of W.S. Gilbert, in particular the patter songs as I was keen to have some patter numbers in our piece. Below is a small section of the libretto which shows the text from a patter song that the ladies of the chorus sing during the Elocution class scene in the Newport Temperance Hall:

EDITH

They put her into prison and she paid the price.

Like every suffragette she made the sacrifice,

but a Parliamentary pardon

chased her up and down the garden

and put paid to penal antics ‘ere she tried it twice.

TUTTI

They put her into prison and she paid the price

Like every suffragette she made the sacrifice,

but a Parliamentary pardon

chased her up and down the garden

And put paid to penal antics ‘ere she tried it twice.

A fond farewell!

A prison cell!

A week long spell!

A living hell!

But Parliament’s decision

foiled her abstinential mission

and curtailed her opposition

in a legal vice!

Elena spent a lot of time listening to Big Band jazz music of the 1920s, George Formby and songs by Weston and Lee such as Goodbyee-ee.  Songs like Arthur Lamb’s A Bird in a Gilded Cage also had particular significance for us, especially given the subject matter:

Working with Elena and delving into the wonderful world of vaudeville has been a truly joyous experience and a fantastic collaboration.  We had tremendous fun researching the era and re-imagining this genre for a modern audience.

Remembering Margaret

Although Lady Rhondda had no children of her own, there were cousins and other relatives who still recall her, though they were very young at the time. The overwhelming impression is of a woman of incredible generosity, integrity and above all fun!

Lady Rhondda is seen here at her maternal grandfather’s house on a bike ride with other family members. She is the figure 3rd from left hunched over her bicycle.

Lady Rhondda is seen here at her maternal grandfather’s house on a bike ride with other family members. She is the figure 3rd from left hunched over her bicycle.

Stories of her kindness to others abound. One cousin fondly remembers:

"I was only ten when Margaret died but I do remember her and Theodora doing jigsaws [at Margaret's Grandfather's house, where the photos were taken]. Margaret was very kind and gave my mother and I a house in Llanwern to live in after my father died [in 1947]. When Margaret died [in 1958] her instructions gave us five years to buy the house if we wanted to. We bought it and lived there for over 35 years. She was a very generous person."

 Another local man recalls:

"I remember a time when I was about ten and I found Margaret’s hat in a hedge somewhere. When I gave it back to her she gave me a ten shilling tip. I’d never had so much money!"

While another cousin tells how:

"Every Christmas until I was 14, I was sent a book to read & criticise for Time & Tide. She always sent my father butter & cream from her farm in Surrey. She also sent my mother silk stockings on occasion!"

Fascinating insights into her early political life have been unearthed by Richard O’Brien whose grandfather, J.T. Rhys knew Margaret and wrote down his recollections of her maiden speech.  This rare archive gives us a unique insight into her development as public speaker. It speaks volumes about the close relationship she had with her father, D.A. Thomas. He saw that she had talent and never regarded her gender as an impediment to success. He had raised her as his equal and gave her the opportunities and encouragement to fulfil her potential.