Review – Calotype

Aug 17 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✩✩  A fine exposure

Fiona Stewart as Jessie Mann in Calotype. Photo © Foolproof theatre

Fiona Stewart as Jessie Mann in Calotype. Photo © Foolproof theatre

Central Hall Shop (Venue 295)
Mon 14 –  Sat 17 August 2013
Review by Irene Brown

Jessie Mann, credited with the first surviving photograph taken by a woman, is given an inventive life in Foolproof theatre’s Calotype, at the Central Hall, Tollcross, all week.

Set up like a developing room, with prints at various stages of being processed pegged on criss-cross strings above and 19th century artefacts dotted around, the venue has been turned into the studio in Rock House, Calton Hill, of photographic pioneers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.

Jessie Mann was an artistic assistant to Hill and Adamson. When The King of Saxony and his entourage arrived to have their picture taken by the famous men, her employers were out and Jessie took the king’s photograph.

Played by Fiona Stewart, who also wrote the script, Jessie is developing the calotype image with the royal entourage in the garden taking tea. Using the ‘miracle of light and chemicals’, Stewart goes through the calotype process on stage over the performance.

There is a genuine warm engagement to her delivery of this monologue, divulging and acting out Mann’s ambitions and dreams. The possibilities of her life are woven through her precise timing of the delicate procedure.

Stewart has created a woman who is unwilling to conform to the expectations of her time. Her character reveals her radical thoughts and ideals. At the end of the play, she reveals the final photograph, The King of Saxony and his Entourage. The image is thought to be the earliest photograph still in existence that was taken by a woman.

A character with an enlightened mind and Christian beliefs

Little historical reference remains to the life of Mann, although she is mentioned in several letters to and from Hill and Adamson. She certainly grew up in the same street as Hill in Perth, moved to Leith in 1841 and appears to have been a staunch supporter of the Free Church. The King’s portrait was taken in 1844.

So Stewart has breathed a full imaginary life into this Perthshire lass, creating a character with an enlightened mind and Christian beliefs who gives credence to our being ‘creatures of a creative god’.

With the capacity to see beauty in everything, Mann equates the basket weaving skills of a Newhaven fishwife to Marcel Duchamp’s radical ideas on art (think his radical insallation of the urinal as art). While displaying an open mind to democracy in art, she tips a comical nod to the idea of democracy in photography where the bombardment of a multitude of images could potentially be quite boring!

This is a well-written, nicely performed and neatly directed piece, full of local and Scottish references. It is a worthy exposé that throws light on the life of yet another woman whose contribution to her field has been eclipsed.

Running time 50 mins
Mon 12 – Sat 17 August 2013
Daily 7pm (Sat mat 3pm)Venue 295, Central Hall, 2 West Tollcross, EH3 9BA
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