Leading Ladies

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Theatre director and artistic director of the Southbank Centre Jude Kelly marks the 350th anniversary of the first performance by the first English professional actress.

Before the restoration and the reopening of the theatres after years of Puritan rule, boys and men had played women's roles. However, when Charles II came to the throne he requested that women be allowed on stage and the course of theatre history was changed forever when a woman took the stage in the role of Desdemona on 8th December 1660.

Although little is known about who she was, Jude Kelly pieces together a picture of what life would have been like for the first generation of actresses. She visits the real tennis court at Hampton Court Palace to find out what the first performance would have been like, takes Celia Imrie to the site of where the first performance took place and tours the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in search of Nell Gwynn.

Were the first actresses' victims of exploitation or women who exploited the situation to their own advantage? Were they whores or pioneers?

Producer: Benjamin Partridge
A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4.
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