A. Vasudevan reviews The House of Marcelle at Explore the Arch

The arts are littered with beautiful works based on lost love letters. The House of Marcelle, the latest offering from Explore the Arch, joins them, drawing on the missives of Marcelle van Caillie and lover/later husband Henry Sanford. A multi-sensory work, it brings the mostly forgotten female artist vividly to life.

One of the youngest people to exhibit at the Palais des Beaux Art in Brussels, Marcelle van Caillie was a talented artist; friends with influential British surrealist Roland Penrose, photographed by Lord Snowdon, and yet she remains largely unknown to modern audiences.

The extraordinary Gail Borrow, co-founder of Explore the Arch which specialises in the intimate theatre that Strindberg advocated well over a century ago, was given access to Marcelle’s work and to a huge bundle of letters. She used them to create this magical, experimental work, detailing not just the artist’s life but also the migrant experience. 

Written between 1944 and 1955, the letters chart the love affair between Marcelle and Henry Sanford, a British serviceman in Belgium when they first met, and Marcelle’s subsequent journey from her homeland to England. The letters are poignant, heart-breaking, full of loneliness and loss and yet also joyful, optimistic, funny even, surprising perhaps given that Marcelle was forced to leave her young daughter behind in Belgium and had arrived in England pretty much penniless, her fate dependent on the man with whom she was in love. 

The years in England proved the most freeing creatively for Marcelle though, who produced some of her most interesting work during that time, including the large-scale head canvases and visceral fibre-glass ‘wound’ and ‘shield’ sculptures that appear in the show. They’re a total contrast to the traditional, rather flat portraits she’d been producing in Belgium to earn money.

The House of Marcelle takes place over two floors and is totally immersive, engaging all of our senses. This is intimate theatre at its best, playing to a maximum audience of 15, all intrinsic to and informing the performances. 

Borrow is a whirling dervish of energy, totally believable as both narrator and Marcelle in all her guises. It’s the Marcelle we meet in the second part of the performance who resonates most, Borrow uttering her beautiful words as she climbs nimbly across the walls adorned with Marcelle’s large-scale paintings, a chair, photos, while discordant music plays from the bathroom behind us, the smells overpowering us, pushing our senses into virtual overload.

”I wanted to pay homage to the overlapping, darting thoughts that take flight when we’re alone,“ Borrow says. And what we experience is part dreamscape, part real world, blurred by the dancing light and shadows of this intimate space. 

The House of Marcelle opens in the centenary year of the artist’s birth. That in itself was a surprise to Borrow. One of the factors of the migrant experience is that quite often key information is lost. Marcelle was thought to have been born in 1922: it was, in fact, 1919, as these letters prove. And the wealth of detail they give about Marcelle’s life is extraordinary. It’s for this reason, among many others, that the innovative work that Explore the Arch does, sharing the migrant experience, is so important. It gives voice to those previously unheard, to those forgotten people who inform our culture, our world. As the daughter of migrants myself, both long gone, that is something I find quite wondrous.

The House of Marcelle, Explore the Arch, Archer Lodge, Charles Road, St Leonards on Sea. Tickets £15; mailing list £14; under 19s free (must book). 
Tickets available locally without booking fee at The Bookkeeper Bookshop and Printed Matter Bookshop. Please support your independent bookshops!


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