Friday, 27 June 2014

In Lambeth - Southwark Playhouse

AN imaginary conversation about revolution, life and religion between the poet and artist William Blake, his wife Catherine and the author and political activist Thomas Paine is the subject of a play which is about to open at the Southwark Playhouse.
In Lambeth was written in 1989 by Jack Shepherd. It is set 200 years before, in 1789, six years after the end of the American Revolution and right at the start of its French equivalent.
At the time, an anxious British government was suppressing any kind of dissident activity and angry mobs roamed the streets in support of church and state.
It was first performed at the Dulwich Tavern in 1989 before a run at the Donmar Warehouse. Since then it hasn't had a London revival - something director and Elephant & Castle resident Michael Kingsbury, who himself played William Blake in a production 20 years ago in Vienna, was keen to change.
The play opens with Thomas Paine running through the streets of Lambeth pursued by angry government agents. When all seems lost he suddenly remembers that fellow dissident and poet William Blake lives nearby in a cottage in Hercules Road in Lambeth.
So he resolves to seek sanctuary in William's garden but when he climbs over the wall he is astonished to see William and his wife Catherine sitting naked, up a tree, reading from Milton's Paradise Lost and communing with angels.
"Although they did meet in real life, this is an imagined encounter between the three of them which takes place one night," says Michael.
"Thomas was seeking sanctuary because of his connections with the revolutions in America and France and had been branded a traitor. He has been chased down the road and jumps over the wall and skulks in the garden where William is up a tree, playing a flute and is with his wife and both are naked.
"He comes into their inner sanctum, an oasis of calm where they must have appeared like Adam and Eve to him. They are completely relaxed about being discovered in an unclothed state.
"It is quite a comical sight in many ways but Thomas is transfixed because here is a man who is so free and able to express himself without fear and worry and yet Thomas is unable to do the same.
"It's night time so it's fairly demure and they don't stay in the tree for the entire time, nor do they stay naked!" he adds laughing.
After the initial awkwardness the three end up having a discussion about a variety of topics including meditation, revolution, religion, poetry, sense of self and spirituality.
"It's a fascinating and quite brilliant play," says Michael. "Although they broadly agree with each other that society needs changing, William and Thomas come from different angles so it's about the spiritual and inner man of William versus the overtly political psyche of Thomas.
"It's very well written, nuanced and full of dramatic debate, passion and guts but also full of wit, fun and humour," he adds.
"They were both visionaries and a bit eccentric - William was concerned about discovering who the inner man was and was considered a bit of a religious madman as he used to conjure up images of angels.
"Catherine was his rock and has to try and keep his feet on the ground so to speak and keep things together. Then you have Thomas who is an incredibly brilliant writer and political activist.
"So it's interesting to see them debate and discuss the issues that mattered very much to them and to society at that time.
"I was always interested in Thomas as a character and the influence he had on the world stage.
"He was a writer and campaigner for the rights of man and had a profound influence on the American and French revolutions. His writing is some of the most important of the last 200 years."
For Michael, the themes discussed in the play have parallels with what's going on around the world at the moment.
"It is most definitely a play of our time," he says. "It's incredibly relevant because of the themes of inequality, rebellion, corruption, revolution and freedom of speech which are being debated and discussed right now.
"What Thomas, William and Catherine were saying and discussing in the play, they were popular topics of conversation then and they still are today.
"When you look at what's going on the in the Middle East with the Arab Spring not to mention what's going on Iraq, Ukraine and Nigeria, the persecution, corruption, rebellion and the fact there is still an issue about freedom of speech and expression, this play has as much to say as it ever did.
"These are still issues people face even after 200 years."
And Michael says he is particularly pleased to be staging the play in the area in which it was set.
"The Southwark Playhouse is a theatre I love and there is something exciting about about bringing it to local audiences particularly as there are so many references to this part of South London with Elephant & Castle, Lambeth Road and Walworth.
"It's also great for me because I know this area so well. I have lived in South London practically all my life. I lived in an estate near the Hercules Road as well as Brixton, Kennington and Streatham and now in Elephant & Castle.
"It's an area undergoing its own change with all the regeneration that is happening. Some of it will be positive and some not so - there is a danger the new homes will be unaffordable to local people.
"So again, this issue about inequality is still relevant."
But for now his main focus is about how he's going to recreate the tree scene in the theatre.
"I’m not quite sure how we are going to do it - getting a big tree onto the stage might be tricky - but I've got a few ideas tucked up my sleeve!" he chuckles.

In Lambeth is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway from Thursday, July 10 until Saturday, August 2.
Tickets from £10. Visit or call the box office on 20 7407 0234

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