In the history of this island nation, there have been men and women who have left their mark with the most extraordinary acts of courage and human endeavour. Yet with the passage of time, their remarkable feats are largely forgotten.
One such is Captain Matthew Webb, the subject of the one-man play Nothing Great is Easy which was performed at Jesus Green Lido on Saturday night as part of the Lido’s ongoing 100th anniversary celebrations.
In 1875 Webb achieved the seemingly impossible feat, then likened to man flying to the moon, of swimming the English Channel without artificial aid, a gruelling swim which took him the best part of 22 hours.
At the time, Webb’s fame was extraordinary, to the extent that he was described by The Daily Telegraph as the ‘most popular man in the world.’ He initially basked in the adulation, pursuing a career as a professional swimmer, taking part in competitions and exhibitions. But his celebrity was fleeting, much like that of a modern day reality TV star. With the need to support his wife and family, he resorted to taking on increasingly daring stunts that pushed both body and mind beyond their limits, irreparably damaging his health.
Webb is a fascinating character and has become something of an obsession for actor and playwright, Chris Hudson, who has extensively researched his life and career. The play serves as a dramatic tour de force, with the character breaking the fourth wall to directly engage the audience in an hour long monologue. It is an inspired piece of writing that neatly recounts the ups and downs of Webb’s career, book-ended with the death defying stunt at Niagara Falls that ultimately proved to be a stunt too far.
Director Rosina Piovani’s simple but effective staging made excellent use of the Lido setting, with Webb frequently diving into the pool to demonstrate his technique, holding his breath beneath the water then reemerging to seamlessly continue his narration. Far from being a gimmick, it gave a very real sense of Webb’s physical prowess, and dogged determination, and delighted the sell-out audience who, unprompted, cheered and applauded the intrepid hero.
In this respect it is testimony to the acting skills of Hudson who wholly inhabited his character from the moment he stepped on stage, dressed in an authentic swimming costume of the period and sporting a resplendent moustache. It was as if Captain Webb himself had been brought back to life, such was the conviction with which he played the part. In Hudson’s accomplished portrayal, Webb’s Victorian stiff upper lip occasionally betrayed the slightest of trembles, subtly highlighting the complex psychology of the man beneath the surface.
Poignant but never sentimental, Nothing Great is Easy was a fitting opening to the Lido’s anniversary celebrations, thoroughly appreciated by the sold-out audience.
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