Words by Ed King / Promotional pictures by Kate Green
What is a legacy? How are we remembered? What do we leave behind that tells others of us? Is it our children, is it our wealth; is it our lives played out in theatre and song?
For Louisa Ryland it was none of these. Until now.
The heiress of the Ryland estate, who inherited her family’s vast fortune when she was just 29 – and the world was 1843 – is the subject of Women & Theatre’s latest production, Not the Last, running at Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) until Sunday 17 September.
Named after the motto emblazoned on the Ryland tombstones, Not the Last is a retrospective look at the life and death of the prominent Birmingham benefactor and final branch on the wealthy industrialist family tree. Written by Susie Sillett and directed by Jennifer Davis, the play explores the last of the Ryland bloodline – who donated modern day millions to the city she was born into, both during her life and after she died.
Many of Birmingham’s hospitals, educational institutes, churches, and public parks – including what is today known as Cannon Hill Park – were donated or built by this ‘Friend of Birmingham’, who courted no celebrity and wanted no recorded recognition for her gifts to the city.
Nor did Louisa Ryland marry or have children of her own, instead dedicating her love, life, and spending habits to those she chose to care for – breaking the Victorian status quo over a woman’s place in polite society, and planting seeds for the future now nurtured in an original production from Women & Theatre.
Performed in the round, in MAC’s main theatre, Not the Last uses a simple patch of earth as it’s stage – roughly 10m by 3m, set on a rostrum in between two audiences flanking the performers. At first it appears sparse, with the two protagonists lying top to tail as the audience enter. But soon dialogue and subterranean props and set buried beneath the top layer of soil bring the stage to life.
Designed by Imogen Melhuish, it’s a clever use of space and allows the cast – Dina (Janice Connolly) and Raynor (Adaya Henry) – to switch from inner city Birmingham to the greenbelt of Warwickshire, as they explore, excavate, and occasionally steal parts of the Ryland heritage, pulling the occasional bench or folding chair from the ground beneath their feet.
Dina and Raynor are part of a local historical society, with the appropriate obsession with acronyms making its way gleefully into the script, and are researching Louisa Ryland as part of a clandestinely competitive presentation the hobbyist historians must make to the wider group.
As a couple brought together by chance, the literal drawing of straws, the exercise allows the pair to not only look at the life of an extraordinary woman – who became supremely wealthy before she was 30 and gave millions in land and money to the city of Birmingham – but to look at themselves.
Dina is stuck in a thornbush of self-doubt, left to grow wild since their school days, with Raynor gasping through a suffocating fear to be all they can be whilst rehabilitating from a damaging head injury. Both women have a story to tell beneath their obvious façade, and by researching the plot points of Lousia Ryland’s life unearth more about themselves in the process. And the occasional piece of garden furniture.
In essence, Not the Last is a self-analytical study on what we are remembered for, and why. And why any of it is important.
Delivered through an astute and funny script, often thought provoking, and relying mainly on dialogue (although each character is given one solo slot in spotlight) the 75 minutes pass almost too quickly and without interval, as we move from initial research to final realisation.
Themes such as self-worth, ambition, acceptance, social norms, the cruelty of the feudal system and our inherited landed gentry, are brought simply and sympathetically to life. Even through death.
But the expectations and challenges chaining the hands of women in the time Louisa Hyland lived and died, on the cusp of the suffragette movement, when women would legally relinquish ownership of their mind, body, and money to their husbands, is a the prominent narrative thread.
The story, which both my sister and I remember being told by our grandmother, another woman not afraid to buck the tend of her time, is that Lousia Ryland never married after being forbade to wed her publicly chosen suitor and not-quite-wealthy-enough man called Henry Smith – who would go on to serve two terms as Birmingham’s Mayor.
But in doing so she kept her wealth, which was – in the parlance of blue blood and wealthy industrialists – significant. And set about donating and distributing it around the growing city of Birmingham, building places of both secular and religious sanctuary across the city.
The play also brings into question the relationship between Louisa and her longstanding nanny then governess, Charlotte Randle – as it does the need to question it in the first place. And whatever the conclusion, or perceived necessity of reaching one, the two women are buried next to each other and the latter’s surname appears on at least one door in Cannon Hill Park.
But the resounding imprint left by Not the Last is not in the script, which has some stand out lines but occasionally jumps over opportunities for development, but in the performances from the two women who introduce, stand up, and deliver the near hour and a half long play.
Going through its own history defining evolution, Women & Theare’s new Artistic Director (Adaya Henry) gives a confident portrayal of a young woman redefining her place in her world, whilst she searches to make sense of the same journey from 200 years ago.
Whilst Janice Conolly, who will leave the same role when she leaves the same stage, is superb – deft in her delivery, pitch perfect funny, experienced, beguiling, and ultimately the aim of anyone who treads the boards, believable.
Not the Last is a sensitive yet unflinching reminder of a life that helped shaped Birmingham which is often forgotten, be it by the patriarchy writing the history books or those of us too wrapped up in modernity to look over our shoulder.
But it’s also about the dangers of history repeating itself – physically and emotionally – and the ease in which we can step into the wrong line because society or the devil on our shoulder tells us to. And if we get only one garden on the earth then what will we use it to grow?
So, thank you Louisa Hyland, for your bravery and benefaction. And the green spaces where so many of us shared so many formative moments. And good luck Janice Connolly.
Two women Birmingham is well blessed to remember.
Women & Theatre’s original production, Not the Last, runs at Midlands Arts Centre until Sunday 17 September. For more information and links to online ticket sales visit www.macbirmingham.co.uk/event/women-theatre-not-the-last
For more on Women & Theatre visit www.womenandtheatre.co.uk