Sep 03 2019

Dr Ashley Thorpe, Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance, recently worked on a production that explores the legacy of Emily Wilding Davison through the genre of Japanese Noh. We recently caught up with Ashley to discover more about the play and its upcoming performances scheduled in London.

1. Could you tell us about yourself and your role within the Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance?

I actually graduated from Royal Holloway with a BA in Drama in 1999, and a PhD in 2003. As a student, one of the things that I loved about the Department was its global outlook, and the opportunity to study drama from across the world. After working in other Universities, I came back to the Department in 2013, and was thrilled to contribute to the same subjects that had so enthralled me. I am Director for the Centre for Asian Theatre & Dance, which brings together the work of a number of colleagues that explores performance in both Asia and the global Asian diaspora. I am also Director of the Noh Training Project UK, an annual workshop dedicated to the practical understanding of one of the world’s oldest continuing performance forms.

2. We understand that you have been working on a production that explores the legacy of Emily Wilding Davison. Could you tell us more about this piece?

It is strongly rooted to the fourteenth century form of Noh, using chant, mask, dance and music, to tell the story of Davison’s death at the Epsom Derby in 1913. As nobody knows the true intentions behind Davison’s actions, and I am male writer exploring a significant moment in women’s history, I wanted to find the right angle to reflect these things. After I discovered that Herbert Jones, the jockey who killed Emily, committed suicide in 1951, I decided to make him the main character. In the first half of the piece, we meet a Gardener working outside Founder’s, who tells a visitor about the new library. He becomes unexpectedly emotional about Emily and then mysteriously disappears. In the second half, set in the Chapel, the ghost of the jockey glides down the aisle and dramatically tells of how his suicide has left him in purgatory, and he is compelled to relive the death of Emily until such time as his soul is purified. The piece is set in the Founder’s Building, where Davison once lived and studied, and it inspired the somewhat gothic storyline.

3. Why was the genre of Japanese Noh chosen to tell this story?

It really came about because Royal Holloway has a Noh stage – the best one outside of Japan and the only permanent one in Europe. Practitioners from Japan come to Royal Holloway every year to teach the Noh Training Project, and they kept prodding me to use my practical understanding of Noh to write a new piece in English. I came across the still shocking footage of Emily Wilding Davison being trampled at the Epsom Derby in 1913, and there was something about the pacing of the footage the fitted the tempo of Noh. Noh are often written about a particular person and place. In Japan, the performance of these works on stages in close proximity to their setting gives them a certain resonance. Emily is written and composed for performance anywhere, but I thought it would be fitting to mark the centenary of women first obtaining the vote with a Noh on the stage in the College where she once studied. I know that some audiences watching it found it a little eerie that the reference points were nearby. In Japan, I feel that Noh is rooted to community and nation building, and I wanted to find something equivalent for it here.

4. How has the production been received so far?

It was performed on the Handa Noh Stage last year as part of the centenary celebrations, and it was met with a lot of positivity and excitement. These things are always an experiment, and I have learnt a huge amount about the mechanics of Noh structure from undertaking the research. It was great to be able to bring the Noh stage to the attention of the wider College, and for people to begin to understand what it is for.

5. From 4-6 September, this production will be performed to a wider audience at Tara Arts in London. How does it feel to bring this production to a wider audience?

To be honest, it is amazing, and rather humbling, to have my first piece of creative writing staged in London, and at a venue that is known for supporting British multicultural and intercultural work. But as I am also co-directing it, producing it, and performing in it, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t daunting and rather stressful!  But there are people flying in from Japan, the USA, and Sweden, to participate in these performances, alongside performers from the UK who have trained in the Noh Training Project UK over the last nine years. It feels like the bringing together of more than a decade of my work.

6. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway and within the Department of Drama, Theatre and Dance?

In Drama you really get to know your students, and teaching always feels like a very collaborative process. They are teaching me all the time, and collective problem solving can be a very genuine and precious experience.   

7. What do you enjoy doing with your time outside of work?

I am a modern British art and ceramics nerd. I love going to exhibitions, museums, buying catalogues and pouring over them. Sometimes I get to go to artist studios, and that’s always an amazing experience. The creativity they have developed over many years, often through unseen processes of trial and error, is always pretty inspiring, and a timely reminder for me when things don't quite work out how I planned.