Jo Shapcott is one of ten poets currently in residence at University of Cambridge museums and collections under the umbrella of ‘Thresholds’, an outreach project launched in November 2012 which is supported by the University of Cambridge and Arts Council England, and organised by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy. Linked to the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, the aim is for each poet to spend a fortnight during January to March 2013 in a particular museum. They interact with staff, give readings and talks, and work with young people to develop creative writing and critical skills, in addition to developing their own responses to the collections with which they are working. Out of this creative fusion the museums are able to promote their activities and hopefully attract new audiences.
Shapcott has been at the Polar Museum in Lensfield Road. Her interest in Sir John Franklin is evidenced in her drama – her first – about the Franklin expedition to find the North-West passage, and the subsequent searches for the missing party. On 28 May 2013, she was present at the museum while a capacity audience listed to Erebus, written as an afternoon play for Radio 4 and first broadcast in January 2012. Accompanying her were the drama’s producer, Tim Dee, and sound designer Jon Nicholls, and after introductions by museum staff the three set the context for the piece, and responded to enthusiastic questions afterwards.
The play is evocative and moving, a series of voices and sounds that together build up the world of the Franklin expedition. Sir John does not appear, but Jane Franklin does, here as in life one of the dominant voices in the tragedy. We hear a crew member, William Braine, coincidentally a surname in Shapcott’s own family, commenting on the crews’ struggle for survival, both before and after his death. Also providing perspectives are an “ice master” who supplies information on the varieties of ice to be found, an Inuit bemused by the strange ways of the Europeans, and explorer Elisha Kent Kane, who mounted two rescue expeditions to find Franklin. The resulting portrait is one of superhuman effort, naivety, and magnificent courage. To give the eyes something to do, the Museum had added a slide show of vintage polar images on a loop.
A concluding image in the play is that of the Inuit using the expedition’s discarded materials. But they have no use for paper so their children use the sheets as toys, launching them into the wind and watching them swirl about and fly off. These could be seen for many years afterwards, driven by the wind, much as the words in the play floated on the airwaves. Despite their fragility, the papers achieved a longevity denied to Franklin’s endeavour, but through such efforts as Erebus, Franklin’s name will live on.
The question and answer session covered a wide range of topics. One audience member noted the interaction of sound and the (arbitrary) images, how the meanings read into the images altered as the play progressed. Naturally Nicholls was questioned on how he developed the soundscape to capture the desolation of the region. Shapcott was asked to what extent the words she used were those of the individuals and to what extent she had created them. The answer was that she had used some words from contemporary sources, but had invented the bulk of them (including, rather controversially, the statement by Jane that she had never really lover her husband).
A particularly interesting comment noted how unusual it was to experience a radio play as a communal activity when it is usually a small-scale domestic experience. I suspect we listened more attentively than we might have done at home or in the car, with their distractions. Given this novel setting, the three who created Erebus were asked how they felt hearing the play with such a large audience: a little bit uncomfortable seemed to be the consensus.
Shapcott said that were she writing the play again she would include references to the psychic investigations into what had happened to the expedition that went on alongside the physical efforts. She said she had had conversations with someone at the museum who was working on this topic, a clear reference to Shane McCorristine, who had given a presentation, ‘PolarDreams, Ghosts and Psychics’, on the paranormal connection with polar exploration, much of which dealt with the clairvoyant efforts to locate Franklin’s party and determine its fate.
It is easy to see why Shapcott was drawn to spend time at the Polar Museum, given her existing interest in Franklin. A collection by all ten Thresholds poets reflecting their time at the museums will be published later in the year. It will be interesting to see what Shapcott produces; Erebus, it is fair to say, will be hard to beat.