This beautiful, quirky theatre is the only working theatre of those owned by the National Trust. The tiny barn seats just 78 and it’s ancient, dark, overarching beams embrace the audience with an intimacy and sense of magical potential from the instant you step in. Those pitted beams have absorbed all its wonderful theatrical moments, from the very earliest days when John Gielgud and Sybil Thorndyke played there on a Sunday afternoon, and give out their potency like the scent of fire.
The theatre is a memorial to Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928), the beautiful, talented actress, whose career, frequently disrupted by her relationships, always revived. She was hugely celebrated at the time, in particular for leading, with Henry Irving, the resurgence of popular enthusiasm for Shakespeare. Her first very brief marriage was to the artist G.F.Watts and she then had two ( illegitimate) children with the Arts and Crafts designer William Godwin. These were Edith Craig and Edward Gordon Craig. While both were very gifted, ‘Edy’ was extraordinary. She studied piano at the Royal Academy of Music, but arthritis blocked this as a career; she acted in plays by Bernard Shaw; was a costumier, and prolific producer, especially for the company she founded called the Pioneer Players which favoured women. She was a tireless proponent of the suffrage movement, lived in a ménage a trois with two other women, and became guardian to a child, Ruby Chelta Craig, in 1932, (she was then 63). Finally, both she and Ellen were involved in early silent movies.
Smallhythe Place is an enchanting 16th century house which Ellen bought in 1899; it was her refuge until she died in 1928 and houses a wonderful collection of memorabilia. It took the following year for Edy to raise money to make the barn viable as a theatre. She opened with regular ‘Memorial Matinees’, and performances have continued ever since, with the formation of the Barn Society taking over from Edy on her death. Peter Mould, the honorary director now of the Society for ten years, manages the season of plays which are a mix of productions by touring companies such as Hotbuckle who specialise in touring English Classics, and by local, slightly more alternative plays such as the upcoming ‘Six Sided Man’ based on Luke Rheinhart’s novel ‘The Dice Man’, performed by Gavin Robertson and Nicholas Collett, and our familiar, excellent ‘April in Paris’ by John Godber and performed by Rachel McCarron and Jonny Magnanti.
Though Ellen remains the celebrity, I feel Edy should have her due. As Peter said, ‘had it not been for attitudes towards her sexuality, she would have been a highly regarded producer and theatrical luminary’.
You can be a member of this elite Barn Theatre Society for the egalitarian fee of £1.00. Be warned: tickets sell fast. All you need to know can be found at: http://www.etbarntheatre.com
The National Trust who own the Barn have their own programme of performances. You can find out about them here:www.nationaltrust.org.uk/smallhythe-place/whatson