Unexpected spaces

Gaining access to a production performed within a prison, Wormwood Scrubs, was like an immersive performance in itself.
James Hadley says one of the delights of being a regular theatre-goer in London is the unexp

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James Hadley says one of the delights of being a regular theatre-goer in London is the unexpected spaces that the pursuit leads you to, including a men's prison and a sack-cloth labyrinth within a warehouse.

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Recently, on two consecutive nights, I found myself going through security checks in order to be admitted to the cavernous Victorian chapel of notorious men's prison Wormwood Scrubs, then exploring a sack-cloth labyrinth erected within a warehouse during the course of an experimental performance on the other side of town.
 
Only Connect, although established in only 2006, is already one of the leading providers of performing arts experience to prison inmates, ex-offenders and youth at risk of offending in the London region. Not only do they guide prisoners through the rehearsal and production process, but they accompany this with individual personal development plans so that the benefits of increased confidence and self-esteem that emerge from the performance process are focussed towards the rehabilitation process.
 
I've never seen a production performed within a prison complex before. The process of gaining access was like an immersive performance in itself. Separated from our possessions, we filed through metal detectors, past sniffer dogs, and got frisked by prison guards. Entering the prison complex, you pass through fortress-like gates, past barbed wire fences, and expect to be traced by search lights as you cross the exercise area towards the Victorian Gothic chapel. Within this darkened, cavernous space, the prisoners presented a reinterpretation of Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'.
 
There was a contemporary setting for the production, with Scrooge reimagined as a sort of hip-hop drug baron, focussed only on increasing his own wealth at the expense of others' welfare. Glimpses into his past showed a background of urban alienation and street violence. The ghosts were imaginatively envisioned; the Ghost of Christmas Past was like a gangster pimp, athletically prancing around in a flapping full-length coat and swinging chains. Each scene emerged from a different shadowy recess of the church, the audience promenading between, so it echoed a service where the congregation follows around the Stations of the Cross.

This and the contemporary setting made it easy to read this classic story of personal rebirth in terms of the prisoners' own opportunity for rehabilitation through considering over their past and the opportunities that the future offers for change. In that sense it was surely one of the more meaningful stagings you could think of for the story. Knowing the prisoners must return to the incarceration of their cells between rehearsals - and indeed straight after the performance is finished - is a sobering thought, and seems to give their performances a passion and intensity of commitment which quickly leads you to forget that they are new to performing.

It's surely a very beneficial use of the personally transformative powers of theatre-making, and leaves you with a feeling of hope for the inmates' chances of a happier future once their sentences have been served. This is something Only Connect follows up on, with opportunities for ex-prisoners to work with the company on productions as part of their process of reimmersion into outside life.
 
The next evening I found myself in a very different context, attending an experimental performance by theatre collective Living Structures. I first came across this interdisciplinary group a year ago when they presented a memorable performance installation called 'Carte Macabre', involving audience members being sat inside moving carts in darkness and wheeled around an elaborate series of sensory tableaux. In my opinion they're very much a company to watch, perhaps a Punchdrunk of the future. They describe their aim as being to 'generate immersive performance events in environments of activated installation', and this is very much what their new work 'Biosphere' delivered.
 
I arrived at an out-of-the-way industrial warehouse in Peckham, South London, which is used as an artists led space for creating projects, known as Area 10. The audience had rightly been warned to wrap up in winter coats and scarves, and we were grateful for mugs of mulled wine before the performance. Inside the space, we were sat on cushions arranged in a horse-shoe facing outwards. Five performers then individually carried out the sort of sequence of physical actions that you might expect to see in a piece of performance art - domestic rituals merged into a sort of individual ecosystem. At one point they plant a head of broccoli in a flowerpot, then eat another head of broccoli and attempt to excrete one they had presumably eaten earlier. Another action is to wire themselves up and frantically run on the spot for a period of time, seemingly thus generating energy to power the naked lightbulb above them.
 
This was all well and good, suggesting ideas of a delicate ecosystem, though I found it more bemusing than gripping, even when performers fell backwards into their chest of belongings to sing of coming from a falling star. It was only after fifteen minutes or so of this, when doors at the back of the space opened emitting a cloud of dry ice and about ten performers wearing only underwear and tribal-style reindeer masks that things began to get a bit more interesting. These reindeer tethered themselves to the chests of the earlier performers, who had now donned Santa suits, and dragged them around the audience, pagan ritual style. 'Bizarre' I'm thinking to myself. Then a performer in what looks across between a crow costume and that of a plague doctor appears aloft and starts to vocalise as we're herded to a far corner of the space by the pagan reindeer.
 
There's general confusion for a few minutes, until it becomes apparent that the sackcloth floor-covering we've all been sitting on is now being rigged up to pulleys and - in one of the most astounding theatrical transformations I've seen - hauled up to create a structure like a circus tent, a massive pavillion that fills most of the warehouse space. Reindeer guard the entrance, eventually letting the audience enter this space one by one to explore. What a childhood fantasy! It was clearly born out of those games where you construct a fort out of blankets over chairs, except this was on a far more elaborate scale. The sackcloth had been sewn so that it formed an immersive space of passages, mazes, forests of tree trunk-like hangings, and various sized chambers. Audience members explore at will, and the space shapes the performance.

Sometimes you come across performance installations in chamber spaces - a reindeer performing some ritual of planting a baby doll's leg in a flower pot, or a santa clause telling fortunes and  offering food and drink. One of the reindeer's movements seemed rather familiar until I recognised it was the friend who had accompanied me to the performance, transformed into a reindeer - so the barriers between audience and performer were becoming blurred and the anonymity of masks allowing audience to interact with each other in ways they might not otherwise do. A reindeer hand-fed me a baby doll leg made of chocolate, but I've no idea if they were a performer or transformed audience member.
 
Eventually choral singing from the assembled reindeer lured everyone to a central chamber, where a climactic ritual was performed. A man, whose legs had clearly both been amputated, was hoisted out of a large pot in which he'd been planted. He was fitted with plastic legs, then lifted up through a vaginal-like tear in the sackcloth ceiling, singing of being reborn and standing tall. I can't admit to understanding too much of what was going on, though there were clear motifs being repeated about ecosystems and regrowing lost limbs.

There was something rather rough and hand-made about the whole experience, yet also bubbling over with imagination and ideals, so it made me think of accounts of 'happenings' in the 'sixties and 'seventies. Idealism blended with ambition and hands-on DIY. The scale of ambition to the piece was astounding, especially when you realise that the collective spent weeks making the piece for a single evening's performance, and with no funding. Now that's art for art's sake!

Written by

James Hadley

12 Jan 2010

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