Reviews & Articles
Middle English, A Performance Piece by Tanya Harrod
Art Workers Guild. London WC2
10 April 2003
Middle English, described as a 'performance lecture' by its ingenious creators Ewan Forster and Christopher Heighes, is probably the first play to be reviewed in these pages. But few plays take their audience so deeply into forgotten areas of architecture and lost vernacular craft. And it is not often that the skills of hurdle-making or road building are demonstrated on stage.
The play's subject is a building - Giles Gilbert Scott’s 1930 Whitelands College, hidden just off the A3 in Putney. Scott is better known for his Gothic Liverpool Cathedral, Battersea Power Station - currently in a ruinous state - and the former Bankside Power Station, now insensitively restored as Tate Modern. Whitelands is another largely forgotten masterpiece in monumental brickwork, its majestic Mayan terraces looking towards the North Downs. We gradually come to understand Whitelands and much else besides, through a poetic collage of film, text, slides, live music and, not least, objects - By the end of the evening at the Art Workers Guild the stage was filled with things – two halves of a rowing skiff, some 10 large dolls houses, representing suburban sprawl, a cupboard, a row of hawthorn trees in pots as well as three hurdles, some split and shaved logs, coppicing tools and a little patch of cobbted road. It is difficult to convey the atmosphere of this strange, brilliantly compelling event. In its surreal melancholy didacticism it reminded me of Patrick Keiller's two films about Englishness, Robinson in Space and London. A comparison might also bemade with Theatre du Complicite whose much larger team of writers and actors also move from arcane research into magical performance.
Middle English takes the form of an exam, a kind of bizarre Genera! Paper that might easily have been sat by the young trainee women teachers at Whitelands in the 1930’s.There are two fierce invigilators, Patrick Driver and Sarah Archdeacon, who also take on plenty of other roles, mostly other worldly. The 'exam' disinters lost histories, of the relationship between Scott and Winifred Mercier,Whitelands idealistic Principal, and of the role played by that strange admirer of the College in the 1880s,the art critic and social reformer John Ruskin. Indeed, this is a very Ruskinian play, echoing the great man's capacious, connective mind and his own strange 'performance lectures’ in which he used lantern slides but also employed servants to carry evocative objects onto the lecture platform. Ruskin's doubts about modernity and the current neglect of his writings are paralleled by Scott's own ambivalent position. His greatest buildings have been victims of modernity's depredations, while his career as an architect is hard to fit into an evolutionary account of the Modem Movement.
Altogether this was an evening of great enchantment, a threnody for lost ideals and tacit skills, for forgotten individuals and buildings. Language and roots of words are explored but, equally, there are many purely visual moments, as when an oak cupboard Whitelands is opened to reveal an image of Scott's brickwork projected onto the interior. Out of the cupboard comes a miniaturised radio mast, soon to be held aloft by an angel singing a Latin plaint. Throughout, there is music, by such ‘lost English 20th-century composers as Elizabeth Lutyens, Alan Rawsthorne and Edmund Rubbra. Modernisms collide. As Forster and Heighes labour upstream in racing skiffs - this is a very physical play - the back projection, drawn as a series of ‘Boy’s Own’ cartoon strips, shows them rowing up the Rhine to visit Hilversum, with its famous Town Hall by Scott's mentor Willem Dudok. The two faux-innocents are also afloat in a world of cultural ironies. The Dutch town reminds us of its radio station and an earlier part of Middle English, when, after breakfast with her father, the young Elizabeth Lutyens secretively tunesin to Hilversum to hear her own radical Chamber Concerto No. 1
The very next day I felt impelled to visit Whitelands College. Although the building seemed run-down and horribly hemmed in by roads and houses, Forster's and Heighes's extraordinary play made it possible to read it as a living space, a site for dreaming and learning. But those dreams are over. Later that evening I looked up Whitelands on the Internet and learned that the College was to 'relocate’. The 'prime freehold site' has been sold to Crest Nicholson PLC, who will carve luxury apartments and a ‘health and fitness facility' out of Scott's great building, in the grounds there will be a further 119 apartments, 50 town houses, 18 semi-detached villas and a concierge gatehouse.
This is the third Forster-Heighes theatrical event. All concern 'intriguing and neglected architectural sites'. Their next project takes the form of an installation at another Scott Building, Liverpool Cathedral. Meanwhile Middle English is expensive to stage and has so far only been seen by small audiences. Anyone with ideas for funding and venues for further performances should visit www.forster-heighes.org.uk.