Sarah Siddons celebrated 'Queen of Drury Lane’ in new play | Theater

She became known as the Queen of Drury Lane and the first truly respectable female actor in the theatre, achieving an astonishing level of popularity by the end of the 18th century.

But despite her fame, there are no contemporary biographies about Sarah Siddons, who was labeled by her contemporaries as „tragedy personified.”

Now, a new play – believed to be the first written about Siddons – is to receive its world premiere at the Hampstead Theatre. The Divine Mrs S by April De Angelis runs in London from March 22 to April 27.

Siddons became famous for her roles in Shakespeare’s tragedies – particularly Lady Macbeth, a character she made her own by portraying a strong maternal instinct and tender femininity.

April de Angelis. Photo: Andy Woods

The actor knew dramatists including David Garrick and Samuel Johnson, and was the subject of dozens of paintings by artists such as Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough.

De Angelis’ backstage comedy, directed by Anna MacMinn, celebrates Siddons’ dominance over the public and critics. The extent of her fame is a Dina Mulock’s 1956 novel John Halifax, GentlemanA crowd in which Siddons, seated in a sedan chair, announces his name by immediately breaking up and setting off a cheer that „must have rung through the town”.

But the play also brings to light the powerlessness of women at that time. They lacked legal capacity and lost money, property, rights over their bodies and control over their children.

Siddons’ career was controlled by her brother, who chose her roles, as well as her husband, who signed her contracts and collected her fees.

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In 1782 Sarah Siddons appeared as Euphrasia in Arthur Murphy's The Grecian Daughter at the Theater Royal in Drury Lane.
In 1782 Sarah Siddons played Euphrasia in Arthur Murphy’s The Gracian Daughter at the Theater Royal, Drury Lane. Description: GL Archive/Alamy

He told the Guardian that he was impressed by Siddons’ ability to achieve fame and popularity despite the circumstances he had lived in, with previous plays including De Angelis, Playhouse Creatures, My Brilliant Friend and Jumpy.

„Women always find ways of self-determination and control over their lives. They find ways of self-expression and exercise power in often limited ways,” the playwright said.

„I was interested in the ways in which Siddons negotiated power for herself and what its limits were. During her lifetime married women were 'legally dead’ and unmarried women were the property of their fathers. Women fought against this poor status for women in many ways.

„Siddens was the most popular actress of her time. [But] To her huge fame – she has an idol and is name checked [Oscar-winning film] All About Eve – No contemporary biography of her. There were no plays, no movies, no novels, yet when I read her life I was amazed by her incredible story.

DeAngelis says that while women now have legal rights, some of the issues Siddons had to negotiate would be familiar today.

Meanwhile, other plays in Hampstead Theatre’s new season include the UK premiere of Stephen Atlee Gurkis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy directed by Michael Longhurst; Oscar-winner Christopher Hampton’s Visit from an Unknown Woman, directed by Clare Lissimore; and the world premiere of Richard Nelson’s An Actor Convalescent in Devon, co-directed by Clarissa Brown.

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The theatre, which has nurtured emerging playwrights including Harold Pinter, Mike Lee and Hanif Qureshi during its 60-year history, also announced the launch of a £1.25 million fundraising appeal.

Last year the theater lost 100% of its Arts Council funding, leading to the resignation of its director. The fundraising campaign was supported by the likes of Tamsin Craig, David Suchet, Gemma Redgrave and Roy Williams.

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