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Ruth Wilson & Polly Stenham on Eleanor

Conversations with leading cultural figures

We speak to the eclectic group of creatives, including Ruth Wilson and Polly Stenham, who have united to create a unique project at Camden's Cob Gallery

Founded in 2011 by curator Victoria Williams and playwright Polly Stenham, the Cob Gallery in Camden has swiftly gained a reputation for intriguing and eclectic programming, producing shows by the likes of Wendy Bevan, Pete Doherty and Phoebe Collings-James. Its latest is a collaboration between its founders, the young filmmakers Alex Warren and Tobias Ross-Southall, and actress Ruth Wilson, who – alongside dancers from the Royal Ballet and musicians Blaine Harrison and Johnny Lloyd – have come together to create a unique composite work titled Eleanor. Here we speak to the individuals involved, discovering both a fascinating piece of filmography and an endeavour that serves London’s youthful artistic community.

What inspired this project?
Alex Warren: It was The Faithless Wife, a Leonard Cohen poem that was shown to me by a friend, and I instantly loved. It struck me as being cinematic in its imagery and detail, and got me thinking about other poems that made me feel a similar way, If I Could Tell You by W.H.Auden and Acquainted With The Night by Robert Frost.

Ruth Wilson as Eleanor 1
Ruth Wilson as Eleanor 1 Still from Eleanor
Is Camden as a locale key to the heart of Eleanor?
Polly Stenham & Victoria Williams: Camden itself is not key to the heart of the Eleanor film – but London certainly is. The film is as much a love story of London, as it is an exploration of companionship and the human spirit.

What was it that excited you about Eleanor?
Ruth Wilson: I was excited about a number of things. The opportunity to work with Alex and Toby, two exciting filmmakers at the beginning of their careers. The chance to dance! I worked alongside two royal ballet ballerinas to create a dance section in  The Eleanor 3 story. I love dancing and think movement is one of the freest forms of expression. So to work closely with experts in this field was a highlight.

Ruth Wilson as Eleanor 2
Ruth Wilson as Eleanor 2 Still from Eleanor
What are you excited to see students bring to the exhibition?
PS & VW: We approached a number of artists associated with The Cob Gallery including Walter Hugo & Zoniel, Phoebe Collings-James, and Adeline de Monseignat asking them to submit responses to the original three poems. We have had an overwhelming response, and it's been exciting to see the breadth of work drawn from just three sources – but also really interesting to see how many have thrown up striking similarities with Eleanor.

Victoria gave the artists the parameter that their work must fit on an A6 postcard. What's intriguing is seeing what Camden's students come up with, working from the same stimuli, but with no parameters. They can enter pieces across any medium, in any form, and the idea of providing a platform for young Londoners to express themselves and gain recognition whilst doing so - is incredibly exciting.

What part would you say youth had to do with the evolution of Eleanor?
PS & VW: Once we knew that the Eleanor film was going to be screened at The Cob Gallery, the idea of getting other artists to respond to the original three poems just as Alex and Toby had, seemed a logical and interesting progression. Given we had already decided to form Cobble Together For The Arts - it also seemed a perfect opportunity to involve young people, young artists, in the project. As soon as we had the idea, the team really ran with it, and we have ended up with a much more comprehensive programme of opportunities for young people, including workshops and mentoring, not just an artistic platform.

Ruth Wilson as Eleanor 3
Ruth Wilson as Eleanor 3 Still from Eleanor
What was it about Ruth that made her important to this project?
AW: Ruth is one of the most versatile and genuinely gifted actresses of our generation. Seemingly doing nothing - she has the ability to move from having a haunting fragility to a hardened cynicism at the drop of a hat.  Given this piece required Ruth to play three different characters, as soon as I knew she was interested it was a no-brainer. But more than that Ruth is keen to learn, keen to try things, and commits fully to whatever she does. Which on a project like this was crucial. From working with the wonderful Romany Pajdak and Kristen McNally from The Royal Ballet and learning a dance in no time at all, to having to shift between characters in a matter of minutes whilst shooting, we couldn't have cast someone better suited to the film. We were very lucky.

How was it playing three distinct roles within the same work?
RW: The opportunity to play three different characters was one of the big appeals of the piece. However without words (everything was shot in silence and then voiced afterwards in a studio) made the task harder. Voice and movement go hand in hand in making a character, so to remove one made it pretty difficult. It meant heavy reliance on the wigs and costume. All my respect goes to hair and make up designer Claire Carter, who had to change my look four or five times a day!

Eleanor is at the Cob Gallery until March 30.

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