Out of all the numerous different reasons why the East End can claim to be the new (and better) West End in terms of cultural buzz, Shakespeare in Shoreditch was representative of at least two: first of all, it was part of the very new and very exciting London Word Festival, a three-week celebration of poetry, music and performance, held in (mostly small) East End venues (from Brick Lane up to Hoxton and Stoke Newington), that puts together new, young, brilliant authors like Joe Dunthorne and Ross Raisin, and more established ones like Iain Sinclair and Robin Ince. Secondly, Shakespeare in Shoreditch informed or reminded the audience that, as recently confirmed by scholars and archeologists, the ancient foundations unearthed last June in a small street off Curtain Road are, indeed, the foundations of London’s first purpose-built playhouse, the Theatre.
The Theatre was inaugurated around 1577, and was home to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, including young William Shakespeare - which makes it a plausible venue for the original première of Romeo and Juliet. According to the legend, when the company was kicked out by its landlord, who reclaimed the site, James Burbage, actor and producer, dismantled the theatre and carried it across the frozen Thames to South London, where it was re-built as the Globe. The story teaches us, amongst other things, that young kids in skinny jeans haven’t discovered anything new in terms of cultural vibrancy: Shoreditch was always where it’s at.
On this particular East End night, some patience and a very flexible frame of mind were required of the audience - particularly the kind of audience who usually sees Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe or in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The venue, South of the Border, was a small vaulted bar cum stage underneath a Mexican restaurant. The doors opened half an hour after the scheduled starting time, and once inside, we discovered there were no chairs - which soon turned the room into a camping site. For some it was a bit too much, but those who remained were in for more than a treat.
The organisers of the Festival had commissioned five young authors to choose one of Shakespeare’s plays, and re-write it with the 2009 East End in mind; results were mixed. Poet and storywriter Salena Godden picked The Merchant of Venice, and re-imagined it as an interview to a contemporary Antonio whose memoirs, For a Pound of Flesh, had been a best-seller. Author and editor Lee Rourke was inspired by the grave-digging scene in Hamlet, specifically decided to ‘focus on the brute materiality’ of it, and turned the gravediggers into working-class Eastenders who complain about the transformation of the area and the advent of digital economy, remembering instead with fondness the close-knit pre-war and WWII community. Freelance journalist Jean Hannah Edelstein transposed A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a polygonal, indie love-story set in contemporary Hoxton. While these were all valid and more or less entertaining attempts, though, the two real gems of the evening were the contributions of Siddharta Bose and Joe Dunthorne.
The former had chosen Othello, and reinvented it putting the spotlight both on its protagonist’s outsider status, and on his power to woo people and charm them with his storytelling abilities. By far the best performer of the night, Bose was also the only one who engaged with the East End’s sense of place more than just ironically or superficially - it is quite easy to elicit recognising laughter from a young, mostly local audience by mentioning the indie crowds or the beigel bakeries, hence it was the road most trodden, but Bose was more observant, and insightfully reproduced the ‘Bollywood to Battersea’ feeling of the area: not only the vintage clothes but also the Curry Mile and the gigantic Vodka ads, the variegated atmosphere of two very different yet neighboring kinds of citizens sharing Brick Lane and the industrial archeology buildings. All of this filtered through the perspective of a raconteur who does not belong to London, and who therefore is the ideal representative of an area that has always been dedicated to transients, yet with which transients have often fallen in love.
And last but not least to come on stage, Joe Dunthorne had picked King Lear, with the explicit aim of matching both the uncontrollable pride and the murderous body-count of the Shakespearian original. His work turned the King into singer/songwriter/producer Ridley Truck (his debut EP carrying the brilliant title ‘I Named My Daughters After STDs’) and the King’s daughters into Ridley’s biggest fans: Errol, Regina and Delia - you can guess which would be the only one honest enough to tell him that his last album was over-produced. In a wonderfully funny rendition of the arrogance of post-everything music against good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, and a hilarious description of the kind of East End posse that surrounds Ridley, Dunthorne was the one who engaged the most with Shakespeare’s language, working it into contemporary slang, quoting but also re-writing his lines - surely something that requires quite a lot of self-confidence and even brazenness, but then that is partly what successful adaptations are all about.
Throughout the evening, the five authors were accompanied by the live-drawing Mustashrik, an artist and designer who illustrated their work as it was happening - with an auction for the results at the end of the night. It is unfortunate that by then the event had lost a considerable amount of its audience to lack of physical comfort, different expectations and lateness (having pauses between every performer did not improve the situation, given that people were sitting on the floor or standing, and that every piece was around 30 minutes long). Shakespeare in Shoreditch was a daring experiment, and as such, it was to be expected that some aspects of it would have worked better than others.
The merit of this event, and more generally of the London Word Festival, lies first of all in providing a platform for the sort of literary enterprise that would otherwise remain untried or unnoticed. Not only the fact that this show was a sell-out, in spite of the occasional in-course defection, proves that there is an interested, enthusiastic audience for this sort of event, but the other fact that such audience was mostly under thirty demonstrates that theatre and performance, in the East End, are still considered quite cool - a good sign for the Tower Theatre Company that, having acquired the site of London’s first Theatre, is going to build a new one on top of it, and bring performance back to Curtain Road in a more permanent and regular way.
One night only; London Word Festival on till Wednesday 25 March