When you go into an old public building like St. Clements Hospital in Bow Road, it follows that you are going back into the past. There it is, waiting for you in the institutional tiles, the bleak passages and the blank scraps of wall where mighty institutional rolls had once hung, the names of great founders embossed in gold on oak.
But this week, if you venture into its semi-derelict spaces, you find the past rising up to embrace you. Here are the human occupants from various stages of the early Victorian building’s multi-tasking history, all portrayed by members of the excellent Planktonic Players. Their four playlets, joined by the common theme of their setting, are part of the Winter Shuffle Festival based on St. Clements.
They are not the first company, and surely not the last, to enlist the narrative of the walls in which they find themselves. The director Deborah Warner did so famously for the 2005 LIFT Festival with her use of Gilbert Scott’s heroic old pile of a hotel at St. Pancras. In you went, more guest than audient, and found yourself following the sounds, stories and ghostly flittings of waitresses down corridor perspectives.
Planktonic does something similar with us as we enter St. Clements. Yes, it’s interactive in the sense that our moving through the rooms like a vicarious museum party sets off the various scenes between doctors, patients, shrinks, victims, but that’s all. We are not required there and are tolerated as invisible voyeurs from some future and supposedly enlightened time. What’s happening – and it’s harrowing, some of it – would have happened if we’d stayed at home. No, the word is immersive, which is both more passive and more challenging.
Here on the stairs is a man in the extremes of mental anguish. Here’s a young woman who longs to get better even without knowing the nature of her affliction. Here’s another one who seems to think her doll is her baby. Someone might hang herself from the staircase. In the Day Room a game of Scrabble is getting hopelessly out of control. Around the corner there’s a contemporary one-to-one between a counsellor and a discharged (but in-denial) soldier plainly suffering from acute PTSD as a result of his experiences in Northern Ireland. The exchanges are kind, intimate, questing. We shouldn’t be here, and our presence is a terrible privilege. Public building though it technically was, the transactions are of the deepest privacy, and herein lies the drama of the whole “production.”
The “show” has no stars, no leads, just a co-operative being. There is however the building, without which, as they say, none of this would have been possible. Rather like a much-lived-in person in the caring sector, it has done and been many things: workhouse for the City of London Union’s board of governors; infirmary, institute for the long-term sick; psychiatric unit, component of the London Hospital, candidate for closure, improvised arts centre for projects of the kind you are now reading about.
A classic biography really, from Dickensian grimness through carbolic Victorianism, twentieth century enlightenment, postwar restructuring then retirement and nostalgia. The drama goes on, naturally, since this is London, land values have soared beyond any old ironmaster’s dreams of avarice and homes are scarce. Enter, stage left-ish, the Community Land Trust, Britain’s first such urban entitity, with its echoes of garden city thinking, Gandhian ideology, and plans for 275 new homes for the four-and-a-half-acre site. This is a story that brings its own plot.
So the soul and character of this patch of the East End becomes as central to our experience as were the identity struggles of its own inmates. Part of Planktonic’s agenda (does their name mean stage healing?) is to mark the passing of this particular scene of trouble, boldness, suffering and selflessness. If it all went unsung, it doesn’t now since the show ends seasonally. So do we. This fact need not carry a health warning since any audience participation remains comfortingly in the voluntary sector. You’re not so much corralled into the finale as choraled. And it’s free; not state-funded but corporate-sponsored. If your conscience nags, don’t worry, there’s a bucket going round.
Review by Alan Franks
The Players Lab is an original and innovative platform which showcases the collaboration of Directors , Actors and Writers who have worked together to devise and script a selection of four short site-specific plays based on the history and stories of St Clements , a disused psychiatric hospital in Mile End.
The lab will make its debut at the Shuffle Festival which is following up , according to Time Out , its “brilliant summer season” with Winter Shuffle this December. The last festival was curated by Danny Boyle himself and is back again with an exciting programme of films, storytelling, poetry , live music and much more! ‘The Players Lab’
Launching at The Winter Shuffle Festival, 2013.
Friday 6th December: 18:00pm-19:00pm and 19:15pm-20:15pm
Saturday 7th December: 18:00pm-19:00pm
Wednesday 11th December: 18:00pm-19:00pm and 19:15pm-20:15pm
Saturday 14th December: 16:15pm-17:15pm, 17:30pm-18:30pm and 20:00pm-21:00pm
Tickets are free and can be reserved online at www.shufflefestival.com.
They will also be available at St Clements Box Office on the day of the event.
Venue: St Clements Hospital, 2A Bow Road, Mile End, London, E3 4LL.
The Winter Shuffle Festival will be running at St Clements Hospital from Thursday 5th to Sunday 15th December 2013.
Sunday 8th December 2013