In a multi-storey car park in London’s very urban Peckham, something special is happening. Culture is getting real.
My relationship with Shakespeare is, in all honesty, vague. I have never immersed myself into our great bard’s masterpieces, I have trouble relating. So it wasn’t the prospect of seeing a performance of Titus Andronicus that sold the evening to me, it was the curious location and the more curious promise that this vision of the tragedy includes elements of parkour and that it is the result of a successful kickstarter campaign.
With about a decade under my belt of living in this part of south east London I am familiar with the multi-storey car park that forms not only the venue for this evening’s performance on the 7th floor, but also hosts an incredibly busy bar and cafe on the rooftop which affords it’s, mostly hipster, clientele a staggering view of the capital’s landmarks. On this night, tinged with light fog, the effect is staggering as the Shard and other prominent features are silhouetted and pointed with spotlights. Across the city somewhere, perhaps at the Globe theatre on the South Bank, folk are settling in for a traditional telling of one of William Shakespeare’s tales. We are in for something entirely different.
The car park seems to be underused for it’s prime purpose, we’re able to drive to the sixth floor only having to pay caution to those headed on foot to the bar and tonight’s play. It takes little time for us to be ushered into the main performance area, one quarter of one level of the car park, bare, grey concrete. The sides still open to the elements on this warm September evening as the bustle of traffic and trains passing close by encroach and add an audible backdrop to what we’re about to witness. Within there are abandoned cars surrounding the central area around which the audience sit, stand or perch (even upon the cars) as best they see fit. The lighting adds a real ambience to the feel of the location and the audience collectively sense that this is a bit different, you feel alert and switched on to what’s happening. This is enhanced further by members of the cast mingling with those gathered around thanking each individual for attending, effectively drawing us into the performance before it’s truly begun. There’s a real eeriness to it.
The anticipation is heightened more by choral singers and beatboxers providing low tones as the performance begins with a topless VW golf being driven into the arena looking very much like a prop from Mad Max, caked in dust and grime, the actors too – who are clothed in sweatpants and hoodies. The energy is ramped immediately with an explosive fight scene resulting in a violent, propelled roll onto the concrete floor which had me wincing for the sake of the actor’s wellbeing.
All of the time the audience, although respecting the boundaries of the obvious performance area, are immersed into proceedings with members of the cast jumping upon the cars where onlookers are perched, and others wandering in and around those standing, sitting on concrete blocks or on the floor. The boundaries between paying public and performer are blurred.
Adopting the appropriate language, parts of the play were amplified when called for via a hefty PA, much of it was not, and this is where my most bitter criticism lies. Personally, I have to concentrate to fully follow any performance of Shakespeare. The ambient noise of a bustling Saturday night and the muted sound of traffic adds to the atmosphere and assists with the immersive experience the creators are setting out to achieve. It works well until a passing train infringes to the extent that the dialogue is lost, the nearby Peckham Rye station is a busy one.
The play itself proceeds at a good pace, the edginess and stylism maintained. The audience were engaged at all times and soon learned to respond to the direction of the supporting cast. You see, an hour sat on your arse on a concrete block or floor takes a toll on your ability to concentrate on the entertainment at hand. Cleverly, the audience form a silent cast of extras, soberly ushered from one part of the car park to another forming an ever-changing, ever-evolving performance space. You may return to the area you were a few minutes before but find it transformed with the clever use of strip lighting and builders lamps. Following the interval we were led to a completely different setting on the other side of the car park away from the intrusive trains and lined the length of each side with wooden benches for us to rest and take in the second half.
As the performance continued, so did the brutality portrayed. The tale of the fictional general Titus of the Roman army and his ongoing plight of vengeance against Tamora, Queen of the Goths holds no bars in addressing rape, violence and scenes of brutality. The parkour elements and energy of the performers is impressive but don’t quite do enough to form an adequate smokescreen to conceal more than one flat performance. No individual shines particularly, but for the most part lines are delivered emotively and with gusto, those who fall flat do so quite noticeably. Interestingly though, the gripes that I have, have mostly manifested after the final scenes when given time to digest what I’d witnessed. At the time I felt fully satisfied and buoyant as my wife and I exited, keen to share our views.
This performance of Titus Andronicus is directed by Pia Furtado and I must applaud her and the cast’s dedication to creating something very gritty and real in a unorthodox setting. Would I rather see Shakespeare in a traditional setting or feel like I’m actively involved in a grimey, tangible setting? Dear Romans! I back the latter all the way.