Celebrating 25 years of the Olivier Theatre

By Esther Biddle, Old Bedalian

I can remember such anticipation at the opening of the Olivier Theatre at Bedales, not least because we had all seen it rise up slowly over the months and years, but also because we could see how the building would change the scope of dramatic performances and drama lessons in school life.

I joined Bedales in Block 3 in 1994 and performing – both as a musician and an actress – was part of the everyday fabric of my time at the school. I was in Block 5 when I was cast in a production of My Mother Said I Never Should, which was directed by two sixth formers and was the first public performance in the newly finished Theatre.

Prior to this, all Drama lessons had been in the Drama Studio, Lupton Hall and the Quad – long before the big glass doors were installed – so the change for all of us was absolutely ginormous! I can remember the thrill of starting rehearsals inside the Theatre and going onto the stage. The auditorium felt so big, and we certainly felt very special and important. Suddenly the work we were producing felt like proper theatre. The beautiful carpentry and framework makes it such a gorgeous building to be in as an audience member, and as young performers we were so excited to have our own proper backstage area with mirrors, lights and a shower!

Everything about that first production was suddenly on such a large scale. Not only the lights and backstage, but the addition of Joanne Greenwood and her amazing sets and costumes took this production – and all those afterwards – to a professional level. In fact, I don’t think anyone can talk about the Theatre without mentioning Joanne. She revolutionised the standard of all the productions at Bedales, which matched the standard of the amazing Theatre itself. I remember high painted pink banners at the back of the stage going all the way up to the top of the doors and being so impressed with the scope of the stage and the theatre space. It gave us as performers a huge playground, and so many entrances and exits through all of the blue doors.

I don’t recall any of us being particularly nervous – most of us were so used to performing at school. Looking back now though, we probably should have been, as it was so well attended because it was the first show in the Theatre and many parents, especially those who had bought seats, wanted to see the new addition to the school.

The play itself looked at four different generations of strong women across the 20th century. As an adult and a mother now, I understand the themes and beats of this play so much more. I hope that we managed to capture some of them in our production. 

It was a privilege to appear in this first show at the Olivier Theatre, where I performed many more times throughout my remaining years at Bedales and beyond. Having your Drama lessons in a 350-seat Theatre is an amazing educational environment, and hands down shaped my career as an actress and musician. I feel so lucky to have been at Bedales when it opened.

Francis Bacon at Bedales

By Ian Douglas, Librarian and Archivist

This week, I was delighted to receive the major new biography of Francis Bacon, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. It was so kind of them to arrange a complimentary copy for the Memorial Library. The book, hailed as “a captivating triumph” and “the definitive biography”, will be of particular interest to Bedalians because it re-evaluates the time the artist spent living in the Lodge at Bedales during the Second World War.

Bacon had served as a volunteer in the London ARP during the early part of the Blitz, but his severe asthma made it impossible to withstand the suffocating clouds of dust that followed a bombing raid. He was forced to take refuge in the country.

Bacon’s patron and lover Eric Hall, husband of Barbara Hall (Bedales 1908-13) and their friend Ken Keast (Bedales Staff 1939-49) arranged for him to rent the Lodge from 1940 to 1943.

Bedales Lodge, much as it would have appeared during Bacon’s tenancy

Previous biographers have tended not to make much of this interlude. Many have got no further than the comic image of a confirmed urbanite struggling to adjust to the countryside – “waking up with all those things singing outside the window”.

This is due partly to Bacon’s famous reticence about his artistic development prior to 1945, when his reputation was established with the first exhibition of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. This event is widely seen as a watershed in the history of painting — “there was painting in England before the Three Studies, and painting after them, and no one … can confuse the two” — and Bacon himself colluded in attempts to forget all that had led up to it. He destroyed much of his earlier work, and as far as possible he suppressed what he could not destroy.

Stevens and Swann are therefore breaking new ground in exploring the period leading up to this watershed. The years spent at Bedales are re-evaluated as a “critical moment” in the artist’s life; a time of “internal reckoning”. They describe the genesis of the few incomplete works surviving from this time (Man in a CapSeated ManMan Standing and Landscape with Colonnade) which were inspired by news photographs from Picture Post which Bacon used to buy weekly in Petersfield. This work shows “Bacon’s turn towards a more gestural form of figurative painting” as well as prefiguring some of the imagery of the Three Studies.

I’m grateful for this fresh appreciation of Bacon’s Hampshire interlude, and I continue to wonder about his motives in choosing Bedales as his bolt-hole. Was it merely a place where his friends knew of a vacant cottage, or was there a more particular attraction? Bacon had already collaborated in joint exhibitions with OB artists Julian Trevelyan and Ivon Hitchens. He may also have known that John Rothenstein — director of the Tate, who later bought Bacon’s work for the gallery — was a Bedalian. I wonder if he was seeking a sort of urbs in rure, to sustain him in his forced exile among the inconsiderate birds.

The new book draws on material from the Bedales Archive, which receives many such enquiries about the history of the school and its former staff and students. The work of the Archive would be impossible without the generous support of many Old Bedalians. Financial donations, and donations of material relating the life of the school – recent as well as more distant history – are always welcome.

Francis Bacon: Revelations, by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan is published in the UK by William Collins. It is available from the publisher, and from all good booksellers.

Remembering Bedales co-founder Oswald Powell

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By Matilda McMorrow, Librarian

“It is never good for the governed or for the government that injustice should be tolerated without protest,” began Oswald Powell in his letter to the Hants & Sussex News in 1913. At the time he was fighting alongside Winifred Powell in solidarity with all women, in a society that took women’s work, money and lives whilst refusing them the right to be seen as people. The Powells would protest this injustice for five more years before any UK women had voting rights. They confronted the tax authorities, took local action in Petersfield and international action at a Budapest conference, and of course, tried to model social change in their work at Bedales. This collaborative, action-driven spirit seems to have been at the heart of the man who co-founded Bedales, and certainly put life into the ideas of John Badley, whose name we might be more familiar with.

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