Dismantling the Theatre Building

Written for the Winter 2019 issue of Brixton Review of Books.

You know the one about Trigger’s broom? In an iconic scene from Only Fools and Horses, Trigger proudly announces that he’s had the same sweeping brush for twenty years. “This old broom,” he says, “has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles”. The gang looks puzzled for a moment, before Sid, the café owner, asks: “how the hell is it the same bloody broom then?”[*]

They are exploring a version of the same question in Oval. ‘Ovalhouse’: a theatre at 52-54 Kennington Oval, is closing; ‘Ovalhouse’: a theatre on Somerleyton Road, Brixton, will soon open. “It is not the walls of this building that have given Ovalhouse its unique position in London’s cultural landscape,” Owen Calvert-Lyons, the venue’s Head of Theatre and Artist Development writes, “but the artists who have filled it with acts of revolution and the audiences who have witnessed them.” As if to underline the point, the final season taking place in the current venue is The Demolition Party, which sees theatre makers collaborating with engineers, literally dismantling sections of the building as part of their shows.

Can a theatre’s identity really be so easily dislodged from the building in which it is based? The Demolition Party is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek way to acknowledge, I think, the complicated relationship the artform has with the structures that house it. On the night I visit we’re handed earplugs and goggles as we enter; half of what used to be the bar is cordoned off behind yellow and black tape. Turning the demolition of a building into a work of art has a fine poetry about it; the hazard signs are a reminder that this really is a (de)construction site.

Emma Frankland’s company of trans fem performers arrives on stage armed with drills and jackhammers, ready to bust the place apart. We Dig, the show that opens the season, is messy and loud and, at moments, seems genuinely dangerous. Reflecting on buried trans histories, the company actually hollows out a huge hole in the foundations of the Ovalhouse. It’s hard work uncovering the things that have long remained concealed, and here you get a real sense of that – the performers spend a good ten minutes at the top of the show simply digging, filling the air with dust and fragments of rock, sweat rising on their skin and their breath growing heavy.

What are they uncovering? The show is about all the things the performers, and their forbears, have been forced to hide. But as much as it is a wider reflection on the heritage of gender variance and the elements that have kept it in the dark over the centuries, We Dig is also about the history of this place. Frankland explains that she asked about trans narratives from the Ovalhouse annals, and was disappointed to learn that, in spite of the venue’s reputation as a home for radical communities, there was little to share. But then fellow performer Travis Albanza pulls a poster of Hot Peaches from the rubble at their feet. Back in 1977, the legendary drag performance troupe presented their play Gay? here. The discovery is significant: we all need foundations, and even more so if you exist in an identity that parts of society still seek to undermine. “Martha P. Johnson stood on this stage,” Albanza tells the audience, invoking the ghost of the woman who fronted Hot Peaches, and launched the Stonewall riots. “MARTHA P. FUCKING JOHNSON!”

Marking the building’s passing, The Demolition Party is both an act of mourning and an act of celebration, as I suppose all the best wakes are. Knowing Ovalhouse will reopen in a year’s time in a building with much better facilities just up the road makes it hard to feel too sentimental about what is being lost. Nonetheless, this place has meant a lot to its communities. It started life in the 1930s as a soup kitchen run by volunteers from Christ Church, Oxford, and those philanthropic origins have been a bedrock of the organisation’s activities ever since. In the 1950s and 60s it was a youth club, offering debating, boxing, football, and later, drama classes. Around this time director Peter Oliver began to invite experimental theatre artists in, and the venue became a focal point for drama that eschewed traditional form and narrative structure. Often, the artists would work directly with young people to create new shows. Among the radical companies that found a home at Ovalhouse were the likes of The People Show, Welfare State, Foco Novo, Bread and Puppet Theatre, Lumiere and Sons, Forkbeard Fantasy and the Pip Simmons Theatre Group. Athol Fugard, Salman Rushdie and Steven Berkoff all appeared here early in their careers; David Hare allegedly had a gig as a stage manager.

In more recent years Ovalhouse has continued to support left field companies - Improbable, Chris Goode, Inua Ellams, Chris Brett Bailey, Yolanda Mercy, Little Soldier - and to involve young people at the core of what they do. Recent innovative projects include The Street, written by Rachel De-lahay, which explored how perceptions of young people have changed over the years and was performed in nearby streets, taking in the dry cleaners, the funeral directors and the Co-op. Another work, The Paper Project, saw artist Mark Storor collaborate with seven young refugees and migrants to mount an artistic testimony to the migration experience.

So when the doors close for the final time, it will no doubt be a poignant moment for many. Theatre artists, after all, are more alert to the pathos of a building’s demise than most. It’s no coincidence that the art form, and the structures that house it, share the same name. Peter Brook famously wrote: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage”. But empty spaces don’t really exist. A performance only ever happens in a place, full of weather and buried things. We’re more aware of this at a theatre show than almost anywhere, because in this live art form, we’re asked to be present, to pay attention to where we are and what’s happening, right here. As John Berger said of empty theatres: “yes, they are full”.

This fact leads to a tendency, among enthusiasts for the artform, to fetishise theatres. The velvet curtains, the plush tip up seating, the chandeliers, the smell of dust that has stayed too long in the dark. You can imagine it, can’t you? Even if you’ve never been inside one, theatres have become a landmark in our cultural cartography. In books and movies, they denote decadence, the meeting of the bourgeois and the bohemian. London’s Great Theatres, a new publication from Prestel by Simon Callow and Derry Moore, revels in the architectural and design details of the buildings themselves. A book in which theatres “come to life in ways we rarely see, when the seats are empty and the stages silent”, it’s coffee table porn for thesps: 240 pages of glossy honey and red. Moore’s camera trails languidly over the interiors of what the pair has determined are London’s ‘great’ theatres. Ornate safety curtains; domed ceilings; neatly knotted ropes in the gantry.

Moore draws the reader’s attention to the corners of the playhouse that we rarely stop to gaze at. A chariot racer behind three lions high over the heads of the punters at the London Coliseum. A guitarist serenading his fawning, semi-naked admirer over the proscenium in the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Winged figures lounging about the sconces at the Royal Opera House. These golden creatures give the auditoria an otherworldly air, transforming them into, as Callow puts it, ‘fantastical grottoes of delight and fantasy’. As if to remind us that the sphere we have entered is set apart from the everyday business of the street outside, to prepare us for the slightly uncanny matter of conjuring other places and people in which we’re about to take part.

Almost all of the theatres included date from the 19th Century, a period that saw a huge surge in theatre building, after changes in the law meant that royal patents were no longer required to open theatres. Colliding with the growth of towns and cities during the Industrial Revolution, it was boom time for theatre architects. That the book includes so few of the more austere houses of the late 20th & 21st century – Sadler’s Wells and the National Theatre are the only examples – signals the extent to which we owe our image of the ‘ideal’ theatre to the leading architects of that earlier era: JT Robinson, CJ Phipps and the most prolific theatre builder in British history, Frank Matcham. The current Ovalhouse, positioned on the corner of South London’s most illustrious roundabout – the Oval cricket ground – with a decidedly ordinary appearance that betrays its origins as a low-key community centre, unsurprisingly, doesn’t receive a mention from Callow and Moore.

There’s a reason, though, why theatre architects of more recent times have tended towards less extravagant design. In part this is the legacy of Brook, the belief in the stripped back ‘empty space’ of black boxes and bare studios as the optimum condition for escaping the ‘deadly theatre’ he despised. Beyond this, the theatre sector - increasingly attuned to the need to diversify its reach - has a growing awareness of the ways in which the exotic strangeness of those 19th Century venues can make many people feel the theatre is not for them. The transition they propose, as Callow describes it, ‘from the real world into that other world of imagination, of exploration – of dreams and of nightmares’, can for that very reason be alienating. Add to that exorbitant ticket and drinks prices; plays by dead white people about dead white times and places - it’s no wonder many people would rather stay at home and watch Netflix instead.

Some theatre makers, eager to connect with new audiences, have gone even further, rejecting theatre buildings altogether: Slunglow, for example, who mounted one recent play in the water of Hull’s Victoria Dock, or Dream Think Speak, who have performed in office blocks, an abandoned shopping centre, Liverpool Cathedral. National Theatre Wales, founded in 2009, is peripatetic, making each show in a new community. Untethered from the need to craft dramas for the predetermined dimensions of a playing space, as the National Theatre in London is, they’ve created some of the most truly remarkable shows of our times – not least of all 2011’s The Passion in Port Talbot, a three-day long adaptation of the mystery play starring Michael Sheen, which roamed across the town and was witnessed by more than 22,000 people.

The complicated power politics of arts venues have been compounded, lately, by the involvement of commercial property developers. Whereas theatres may once have been built by impresarios or not-for-profit groups and local authorities, many of London’s newer theatres have emerged from major commercial developments. Take Nick Hytner’s venue due to open in Kings Cross in 2021, in partnership with Argent Property Developers; or the new Turbine Theatre at the Battersea Power Station site, owned by Malaysia’s biggest developers, Sime Darby Property and S P Setia Berhad.

Often venues like these aren’t simply a bit of community friendly gloss designed to pick up positive press for the schemes in local newspapers. In 2002, urban planner Richard Florida published a book called The Rise of The Creative Class, in which he argued for how ‘the creative classes’ – artists, creatives, hipsters – are the driving force behind the economic growth of many previously neglected areas. A phenomenon that had been occurring organically – artists are attracted to an area because of low pricing, lend it cultural cache, and then more investment follows – became, Florida argued, something that could be orchestrated by developers: they simply needed to offer the kind of hangouts that appeal to this clientele. Arts venues, for example. This thinking has inspired developers globally. If you’ve ever been to an exhibition in a box park, you’ve stepped into Florida’s world.

But in 2015 Florida published The New Urban Crisis, admitting he was wrong. Or at least that the regeneration processes he had extolled didn’t bring benefits to all residents equally. The rich got rich, while the poorer inhabitants of an area often got poorer, if they could even hang around at all, and weren’t forced out by rising rent prices. As I’m a relative newcomer to Brixton, and - with my penchant for flat whites and writing essays for trendy underground literary publications - undeniably a prime example of the creative class Florida described, I’m not best placed to offer an objective critique of the impact of this kind of regeneration in our corner of London. But, passing by Pop on a busy Summer weekend, or stopping for a craft beer in Brixton Village, the extent to which the area has changed over the last decade is surely apparent to even the most casual observer.

This isn’t to argue that new theatre buildings are always a bad thing. Rather, it brings new weight to the questions of what they do, who they are run by and who they are for. The Somerleyton Road Project, of which the new Ovalhouse is a part, is an initiative from Lambeth Council, in partnership with community-led not-for-profit Brixton Green. The new theatre is being funded by an Arts Council England grant, and the sale of the old site to the Oval Cricket Ground, who will use it for a live-in academy for young England cricketers. But the development scheme has, inevitably, caused some anguish locally: people have lost their homes, and questions have been raised about the extent to which original commitments to the provision of social housing will be met. Ovalhouse will need to be highly sensitive in negotiating what it means to be a resource that serves an established community, rather than becoming a force that contributes to changes that marginalise them.

The organisation’s track record of working with the South London community for nearly a century makes me cautiously optimistic. Plans are encouraging. One significant enterprise is Let’s Build: Ovalhouse is working directly with Brixton primary school children to design and build a temporary theatre on the Somerleyton Road site. Let’s Build is led by Tobi Kyeremateng, a producer who was part of Ovalhouse’s creative youth programme herself in the early 2010s and has gone on to be highly regarded in the sector - she was recently rated as one of The Stage’s 100 most influential people in British theatre for her work to improve access for Black audiences. Once the structure is built, school children will curate performances to be staged there in Summer 2020, prior to the permanent building opening in late 2020/early 2021.

If some essential ‘Ovalhouseness’ remains, after the brickwork in Kennington has been dismantled, let’s hope it’s this: a genuine understanding of what it means to be a theatre that belongs to the people around it. Ultimately, what a community in a state of flux needs is a place to come together in person, to share stories and seek a better understanding of what we have in common. A theatre – when it gets it right - can be exactly that.

  1. [*]a more intellectual version of the conundrum is presented as ‘Theseus’ Ship’. I prefer Trigger’s version.

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