It would have been difficult to find a more perfect venue for this London Word Festival commission than the Jamboree, nestled in a room of the Cable Street Studios courtyard, surrounded by walls covered in home-printed leaflets. To arrive there, you need to turn off the desolate pavement vastness of Commercial Road and pass under the DLR tracks, turning your back to the hip side of the East End but not quite entering the gentrified cobbled streets of Wapping. Behind the car pounds and mediocre new builds, you will keep glimpsing in the distance, under a fine drizzle, the electric pyramid of Canary Wharf - and Canary Wharf itself, the vertical redevelopment of the Docklands, is the subject of Chris McCabe’s ‘play of voices’ Shad Thames, Broken Wharf.
Presented in candlelight and following an introduction by East London prophet Iain Sinclair, McCabe’s poem/play was performed on stage by McCabe himself, and by Tracey Wilkinson and Luke McEwan, playing Echo and Blaise, who are talking and drinking in an old pub near the river - Echo has been living in the area all her life, Blaise comes from Liverpool. Their discussion reminisces about the redevelopments of the Docklands, the invasion of the area by fat men with small hands trying to compensate by wearing big square watches, the light sof the construction sites shining on the children playing in the mud of the shores, digging for cheap treasures. Their dialogue is interrupted whenever one of them needs to ‘go for a piss’, and in those pauses we hear the voice of The Restructure, performed by Paul Henderson, telling us about the mission ‘to make north and south a tabula rasa’, ‘rotating to vertical so many horizons’, networking and negotiating and meaning business. Every spell of The Restructure is followed by a musical intervention by the Bleeding Heart Narrative shifting, numberless collective, which on this particular night included (at least) six violins, five cellos, and a guitar.
The music’s emotional ebbs, together with the projection of Jack Wake-Walker’s beautiful shots of the Thames and of crossing cranes against the sky, seemed to be redeeming the presence of The Restructure; they opposed the most human to the least soulful. But Shad Thames, Broken Wharf is not a political manifesto, and it isn’t trying to get us started on a witch-hunt against the City men lurking outside. McCabe has written, rather, an elegy, an urban bucolic around the river and its Eastern banks; when hands are raised, they are not tensing in revolutionary fists, but holding half-pint cartons of milk bought at the convenience store in the small hours of the morning against the stars. When there are steps, they are not leading up to the guillotine, but down to the brown river and its ‘flotsam’, and they are covered in ‘a blanket of emerald moss, cotton-soft’.
The perfection of this production lay not only in McCabe’s highly accomplished, flowing text, but also in the intensity and command of the here and now, of where we were sitting, of how we had arrived there, of the London myths surrounding us, of the visceral relationships that people tend to have with this side of town. Shad Thames, Broken Wharf thrust its fingers inside the part of the East End that remains and resists, not passively, but not combatively, simply by virtue of the depth of its roots.