UNFINISHED HISTORIES – RE-STAGING REVOLUTIONS
Alternative Theatre in Lambeth and Camden 1968-88.
Oval House 52-54 Kennington Oval SE11 5SW To 21 December 2013.
Looking back at a past that was looking forward.
During the 1960s and 70s a theatre movement flourished mainly in London, although there were companies outside, notably 7:84 in Scotland, which was artistically revolutionary and politically radical.
The Oval House in Kennington was home to many of them. In London they flourished mainly in Lambeth and Camden and Unfinished Histories – Re-Staging Revolutions comprises an exhibition and a series of talks about the work of these companies, many of which were quite small, most of which have not survived, and many of whom, although not all, were in danger of being forgotten.
The exhibition apart, a web site has been set up dedicated to recording the histories of these London companies, the memories of those involved, with the photographs and playbills of the time (www.unfinishedhistories.com).
At present it is limited to the companies which worked in those two London boroughs – 7:84, although it began in London operated mainly in Scotland and for that very reason is well documented and not covered by the booklet about the exhibition or the site. The hope is that, funds permitting, the archives will be extended.
Some 50 companies are dealt with, but there were more than 700 set up during those two decades. They included Women’s Street Theatre Group, Bubble, Red Ladder or Broadside Mobile Worker’s Theatre. They challenged the establishment and gave a voice to sections of society which had not previously had one. In the Foreword to the exhibition Tony Robinson says that in Bristol he had been one of the people who set up Avon Touring Theatre with the aim of producing progressive plays for working class audiences, an antidote to the tired West End hits performed at the Bristol Old Vic and the like.
“I don’t remember when we first realised we were a tiny part of a nationwide phenomenon,” he says. “But suddenly we undoubtedly were. There were Pip Simmons, Foco Novo, 7:84, Solent Peoples Theatre, Monstrous Regiment, M6, Belt and Braces and hundreds more, all talented radical artists struggling to make meaningful, contemporary theatre.
“But then 1979 arrived, Mrs Thatcher and the forces of neo-conservatism emerged, and swiftly we were thwarted…at least for a while. So had we been deluded? Had we spent the best part of a decade wasting our time? Certainly we’d had a profound influence on Britain’s theatre practice, but what about the politics? Were we anything more than the latest wave of bright young things?”
The events to be held at the Oval Theatre, including readings of plays from the time, and a look at the work of the Black Theatre attempt to answer that question. Those involved in the events were, of course, hugely influential in those decades.
Opening the exhibition Bill Paterson, who was a member of 7:84, said that he had been at another 50th anniversary earlier in the week as perhaps had some of his audience. It was, of course, the National Theatre’s 50th birthday party. Without being unkind or disrespectful to the occasion, he said, in the course of the evening he had begun to wonder whether any of the plays being celebrated – Copenhagen apart – had changed anything.
That was what 7:84 had done. In its first year it had changed Scottish politics and had such a profound effect that the Scottish Nationalists won far more seats in 1974 than they should have done.
The work of the companies covered in the exhibition showed the difference between the theatre of the 60s and 70s, a theatre which had shifted the attitudes and the parameters of theatre of the day and the kind of status quo seen at the National Theatre’s birthday party.