Yesterday I had the pleasure of seeing the innovative new play, Letters to Emma by playwright Dr Carolyn Scott Jeffs at the Lichfield Garrick theatre.
The play features the ‘Swan of Lichfield’, poet and biographer Anna Seward (1742-1809), an eighteenth-century author who was friends with Samuel Johnson, Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles), and James Boswell. Indeed, Seward published Memoirs of the Life of Dr. Darwin in 1804; her own poetry was posthumously published the year after her death by Sir Walter Scott along with a biography and extracts of her letters.
The letters provide the impetus for this new play; Seward had an imaginary penfriend, Emma, to whom she wrote around 39 letters affording her an outlet for her thoughts and feelings. Anna Seward was played by Heather Westwell whose controlled performance brought the character of a late eighteenth century gentlewoman to life completely convincingly. The play is no period drama though, and events in the life of Seward are contrasted with that of a 21st century English student, Emma played by incredibly talented Lizzie Wofford. The two women remain on stage throughout the play and the comparisons between the lives of the women across the centuries are allowed to unfold: just as Seward writes to her imagined correspondent Emma, her present day namesake uses several social media accounts for the same purpose. However, modern Emma becomes increasingly isolated after a failed relationship sees her withdraw into an isolated online world.
Wofford’s portrayal of the increasingly manic Emma, one minute typing furiously on her laptop, the next pounding on a treadmill after impulsively enrolling in a marathon, is totally absorbing. As Emma retreats into her online world, the one bright spot in her day is the Instagram updates from her grandmother blogging her world cruise under the inspired handle of ‘Insta-Nan’.
The connection between the two women is formalised when Emma hits on the idea of researching Seward for her dissertation, and reveals similarities between the gossip Seward was subject of with the brutal online trolling she is experiencing following an intemperate tweet about her ex-boyfriend.
The production makes excellent and innovative use of technology to replicate both the immediacy and overwhelming nature of online trolling for the audience. As someone who teaches students the same age as Emma, and who has witnessed similar cyber pile-ons of outspoken women – one only has to recall the experience of Midlands MP Jess Phillips who reportedly received 600 rape threats in a single day – Letters to Emma is a play which both resonated with me and gave me much to reflect on. Indeed, I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. The play is billed as a ghost story: ‘an eerie tale of our time where the ghosts have found a new place to hide’, and the way in which it is haunting me suggests that it more than meets its aim. While its run at the Garrick has finished, if you have a chance to see it in the future, I’d urge doing so.
Disclaimer: Carolyn and I are colleagues in the School of Arts, English, and Drama at Loughborough University.