Treasure in Hackney (Day 31)

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A theatrical day. Started with a performance in front of 20-year old University of Syracuse students illustrating the principles of multiplatform TV creation. Went smoothly though the fella who was sitting for some reason with his red trackie bottoms round his ankles, mercifully with running shorts on underneath, did distract me momentarily. Otherwise a friendly and respectful class. That warmed me up for a trip to E8 to a quiet back road off Kingsland Road in Dalston to immerse myself in the thespian world of Joan Littlewood and the Theatre Workshop.

I went to interview two women who worked closely with Joan at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE) in the 60s and 70s. When I arrived a Stratford native who had been part of the army of kids who gathered around the Theatre with Joan and her partner Gerry Raffles’ encouragement, keeping them engaged and as much as possible away from trouble, was sitting having a quiet cup of tea with the interviewee who was kindly hosting. Her job revolved around the community outreach  work which kept the Theatre and company in close touch with day-to-day reality and relevance. The 45 year old connection between him and her was clearly still strong and affectionate. She could recall the name of every child in every photo from back then.

A long table had been carefully arranged for me with documentation from Joan’s activities extending from just after the War til the 70s – photographs, clippings, letters, programmes. A bottle of water and a glass was left thoughtfully by the  chair. It took me two hours, fuelled on the coffee and chocolate biscuits that kindly followed, to get as far as 1963 where I parked up tantalisingly at the cliff-hanger of Oh What a Lovely War. The two things that most stood out for me was the material on Brendan Behan, which for all the tragedy of the drink and the pantomime Irish stuff, drew attention to what a wit he was, a worthy compatriot of Wilde; and a photo album of Great War photographs which served as research/source material for Oh What a Lovely War. It ranged from prints of Haig and the high command via aircraft and newly emerged tanks to nurses and troops in wrecked churches – no idea where Joan acquired these from but it was no ordinary collection. Detailed research and a documentary sensibility were critical to the evolution of the landmark show. I’m going back for Round 2 in this extraordinary archive in a few days, accompanied by Adrian Dunbar who has recently been playing Behan on stage in New York.

The double interview – the two women specifically requested to be interviewed together as they enjoy the fact they have slightly different perspectives on TRSE and naturally fall into a bantery double act – was illuminating and  free flowing. They both preferred not to be recorded (which surprised me, I’d have expected the opposite in the interests of accuracy) so we had a not over-structured chat from which the complex character of Littlewood emerged  strongly if not clearly. She evidently had at least as many contradictions, ambiguities and complexities as the rest of us, probably many more to match what the second interviewee described unequivocally as her genius. Our host made it clear that the total focus Joan had on her theatre work, that her genius, was only possible because her partner/lover Gerry in particular (and her colleagues to some extent) dealt with all the everyday demands and realities – cooking, shopping, paying the bills and rent, transport, the lot. A gender reversal perhaps but a common dynamic – behind many if not every creative genius lies a person who cares and supports in a quotidian, quiet way.

The thing that most struck me during the afternoon was a photograph by the door in. It showed Joan working hard on a patch of waste ground by the Theatre which they were preparing to squat as a venue for kids and community activities.  An army of urchins were lending hands. Over Joan’s shoulder is a beautiful dark-haired teenage girl. Radiating energy she is marshalling the younger children. This was my host back in the late 60s. Despite her youth, she’d already made a name for herself racing scooters and setting speed records. She still has 30 scooters out back of her tardis-like house. For all her energy and friendliness, her edge and integrity, I’d never have guessed from her outward appearance when I first met her on stage at the Theatre Royal a couple of weeks ago that such stories lie behind her. I am constantly amazed and shaken out of my assumptions by the stories of ‘everyday’ people.

brendan behan

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1 comment so far

  1. […] back down Old Church Street Adrian Dunbar rang to confirm arrangements for tomorrow’s trip back to the Littlewood archives. He wanted to bring Janet Behan with, Brendan’s niece (author of Brendan at the Chelsea), but […]


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