Barbara Rigby, as a young woman
Academics in Modern Languages and Cultures are, by the nature of their work, often involved in collaborations worldwide. But sometimes these also turn up surprising connections close to home. Dr Kay Chadwick, Reader in French Historical Studies, is currently developing a project with actor and writer Jenny Davis, a member of the flagship Black Swan State Theatre Company based in Perth, Western Australia, and director of Agelink Theatre, which specialises in creating theatrical productions based on oral histories and local research. Kay and Jenny, in association with the Yorkshire Air Museum, plan to bring Jenny’s play Cis and Barbiche to Liverpool in 2018.
Francis Usai, in uniform
The play is based on The Bright Squadrons: A True Story of Love and War (2014), written by Barbara (Barbiche) Harper-Nelson (née Rigby) and Geneviève Monneris, with translations by Michel Darribehaude. This was written from Barbara’s wartime diaries, and from the many letters she received from French airman Francis Usai (Cis), who arrived in Britain via Liverpool in late 1943, at the age of 21, to fight with RAF Bomber Command out of RAF Elvington near York. The two met on 1 January 1944 when Barbara, then 18 and a student of French at the University of Liverpool, attended a social event at the British Council’s Allied Centre in the city centre, which worked with Allied troops arriving via Liverpool to fight alongside Britain. Francis and Barbara’s relationship grew with their correspondence, and survived the turbulent period of the war. But they ultimately went on to live separate lives. Francis returned to his home village near Marseilles, while, after graduating in 1946, Barbara worked for the WRVS and in the WRAC, serving in Kenya, where she met her husband. They married in 1960 and moved to Perth, Western Australia, in 1962. Barbara lived to see the first performances of Cis and Barbiche in Perth in 2014, but she died in May 2016, aged 91.
The project connects closely with Dr Chadwick’s research interests in France and the Second World War. She hopes that staging Cis and Barbiche in Liverpool, alongside complementary community-based events, will help to raise public awareness of the significant connections between France and Liverpool during the Second World War, and of the importance that oral history plays in communicating an understanding of the past to younger generations.
In a serendipitous additional connection with things French, Jenny Davis is currently playing Madame Pernelle in a new adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe by Justin Fleming, showing until 6 November 2016 at the Heath Ledger Theatre in Perth, prior to a run into December at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre in Brisbane. First performed in 1664, Tartuffe is a highly amusing yet disturbingly dark exploration of hypocrisy, whose continuing success on stages worldwide is testament to both its timelessness and its adaptability. Liverpool people will no doubt remember Roger McGough’s excellent version, staged at the Playhouse in 2008. In 2016, Fleming’s adaptation speaks to its contemporary audience not only through mention of Facebook, selfies and Uber, but also through witty Australian-specific references and colloquialisms. For example, the play ends when an investigative journalist working for the nationwide ‘serious’ Australian Broadcasting Corporation arrives to expose Tartuffe, at the same time taking a swipe at the ‘lightweight’ commercial television stations based in Perth. And when Orgon ― who has blindly championed Tartuffe throughout to his family’s dismay ― finally sees the light when he witnesses Tartuffe’s sexual pursuit of Elmire, his wife, he tells his mother, Madame Pernelle, that Tartuffe almost had his tongue on her ‘map of Tassie’. Tassie means Tasmania. But, to get the full allusion, check out the Urban Dictionary meaning. This is not a Tartuffe for the shy and fainthearted!
Jenny Davis and Kay Chadwick at the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth, Western Australia