Emma Hamilton’s Attitudes Renewed Back

Over the weekend of February 15th-16th 2014, visitors to The Queen’s House in Greenwich were treated to regular 15-minute performances of Emma Hamilton’s Attitudes Renewed. A combination of dance, mime, theatre and projected film, the performances arose through collaboration between the artist collective, Akleriah, the film-maker Jason Wen, and University of Greenwich drama lecturer, Jillian Wallis, who directed her students in the show. The project reflected on the life of Emma Hamilton (1765-1815), most famous as the mistress of Admiral Lord Nelson, but here given attention in her own right as a pioneer of performance art. The ‘attitudes’ of the performance’s title were a particular form of costumed dance developed by Hamilton while living in Italy. The form is re-imagined here as a means of representing some of the triumphs and tragedies of Hamilton’s own life.

I spoke to Jillian Wallis following the weekend of performances to get her thoughts on the significance of Emma Hamilton’s story and the appeal of accessing history of the long eighteenth century through performances such as these. To give a sense of the scope of the performance, the cast list is included below.

How did this project get started? What is it about the life of Emma Hamilton that makes it suitable for this sort of performance?

Emma Hamilton is an iconic historical figure whose eventful life has been read and artistically reacted to in a multitude of ways, some kinder than others. The Queen’s House commissioned Akleriah to make the performance as it ties in with the current display of engravings of Emma’s Attitudes by Friedrich Rehberg (1800). Plus, of course, Emma’s affair with Admiral Lord Nelson gives her a controversial but undeniable place in maritime history, hence the interest of the Royal Museums Greenwich, of which the Queen’s House is a part.

Do you see yourselves as offering a modern equivalent of Emma Hamilton’s attitudes or a homage to them?

A key question. Emma was arguably the first female performance artist and her solo show was remarkably daring and innovative for its time, captivating the audiences who saw it. We wanted to draw upon the original poses that Emma used, which were inspired by classical Greek and Roman sculptures, and so appreciate her emotional and imaginative skills as a performer. Simultaneously we tried to respond with relevance to contemporary concerns and weave in modern day “Attitudes” or physical representations, and much of this relates to how others in society saw Emma. So we included influential characters from her life such as the controlling lover Greville and an image of him shaking hands with her soon-to-be husband William Hamilton. The social standing of the men in her life significantly improved Emma’s own status and material wealth, but perhaps at a cost to her independence and liberty. All of this was fluid and changeable: Emma was an adventuress who rose to fame from poverty and was thus arguably mistress of her own destiny. We wanted to reflect this possibility. For example the Young Emma moves from playful innocence, to awe on seeing her future self, and finally to adopting powerful contemporary poses. Theatrically speaking, the characters offer contrasting reactions to a contentious female protagonist – Queen Maria Carolina treated Emma favourably as she respected her judgements as political ally and friend, whilst some society women snubbed and openly mocked her. This interested me as a theatre director; when moods and sensibilities clash in a staged setting we can learn something new about the human experience.

What were the main sources for the various quotations included in the script?

We used Flora Fraser’s biography Beloved Emma, for example for some of those unkind comments from society ladies such as Lady Palmerston: “I find her not so beautiful as I expected… Her voice is vulgar and she and Sir William are rather too fond”. There were also extracts from Lady Hamilton’s Letters in the filmed, opening speech by Emma to Greville, jumping from her time in London to Naples.

And the songs?

Emma featured song in her performances and we chose music from around that era, not necessarily that she had used but allowing shifts in mood. These were Henry Purcell’s late seventeenth-century “If music be the food of love” and Purcell’s “I attempt from Love’s Sickness”, and lastly Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song”, actually from 1834. Its lyrics are sad as if approaching an end but still hopeful and beautiful: “On wings of love I’ll bear thee enchanted realms to see, come, o my love, prepare thee in dreamland to wander with me”.

How important were the performance space and the surrounding art works for the way you planned the performance? 

Akleriah have previously created site-specific work at the Queen’s House and the gallery itself provides a certain ambiance to do with viewing, with re-seeing. The audience are visitors passing through, hopefully wanting to discover something or to have their curiosity aroused. There is a resonance because of the presence of the paintings of Emma herself, such as Romney’s Lady Emma Hamilton as Cassandra, but also the other faces and scenarios framed and caught in a moment in time, waiting to be looked at.

The performance makes creative use of video projection. Was there a particular rationale behind your use of modern technology?

Jason Wen compiled a film that would work within the piece to suggest images from Emma’s life and surroundings such as the trees in St James’ Park where she paraded as a courtesan, or a beautiful painting of Emma, but he also used modern techniques to edit and play with those images and their duration. The film [projected onto and through fabric] is integrated rather than a backdrop, allowing interplay between the mediums of technology and live performance. To me it echoes the shifting, transitory nature of Emma’s life and fortune and opens up a fuller visual landscape.

The performance features some very imaginative costumes and make-up. Could you tell me a bit about the ideas behind these?

The costumes were designed and created by Anna Kompaniets of Akleriah and combine a historical and contemporary representational response to each character. Anna recycles and reappropriates materials and objects within her creations, which adds a further dimension semiotically. For instance, the Queen’s crown featured tiny plastic toy soldiers sprayed gold.

How did the students feel about portraying Emma Hamilton’s life? Were any of them familiar with her story already?

Some had heard of Emma Hamilton but knew little about her life. Early on in the project, Lenka Horakova of Akleriah asked which of the themes that she had identified to do with Emma (such as intrigue, status, loneliness, rivalry, passion) each student specially connected to. This was a very good way of arousing their individual interest and enthusiasm to help create the performance.


Emma Hamilton: Jourdan Powell

Young Emma Hamilton: Ruby Brown

William Hamilton: Rhys Pridmore

Emma’s Mother: Jackie Collins

George Romney and Charles Greville: James Walsom

Queen Maria Carolina: Amy Bentley

Lady X: Chantelle Walker