Words for a Week Anniversary (Following the Fire 13 March)
When asked what quality he most admired in a theatre, the director Peter Brookreplied: ‘Combustibility’. The fire that took out the Grand Hall heart of the Battersea Arts Centre at this time last Friday joins a lineage that stretches back to Shakespeare’s Globe that succumbed to a misdirected cannon shot in 1613. For three more centuries theatres were built, and theatres burnt. Since the invention of London’s first ‘Safety Theatre’, the Palace Theatre in the late nineteenth century, performance spaces have been licensed along the same lines as hotels. They have to prove they are a safe place to sleep.
But some venues just don’t sleep and the outpouring of emotion in the wake of this latest conflagrationreassures us there is something special about BAC. We knew that, this showed that. It could not just be for the architecture, unlike Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s beautiful Glasgow School of Art, the Edwardian Baroque of BAC has no special claim to my affection. It is, if anything, too imposing for easy comfort. But then again, in my earshot,no one ever promised comfort there, it has always been about excitement, energy and engagement.A special kind of equality on walking through its portal seems guaranteed.
The unique quality of the building is its commitment to two intimate things that people still hold dear despite digital signs to the contrary.The first is an opportunity to gather in large groups and celebrate someone’s love for someone else. Not necessarily Romeo for Juliet, though a check of the marriage records might reveal several over the years, but a former Town Hall where ceremony is central to everything that happens. The second is an opportunity to gather in any and every kind of assembly known to humans, in the warren of spaces that make up the building, to share performances that change the face of British Theatre.
It was no hubris when David announced just a few weeks ago a new season of work that included a series of performances exploring national identity. For many, BAC has operated as the de facto National Theatre of the future with its diversity of programming, continuous unstinting support for the development of theatre makers through its ‘Scratch’ nights, and its revolutionary approach to refashioning itself as a public playground with Steve and the team at Haworth Tompkins.
At that same launch event Steve talked movingly about what it took to collaborate, client and practice, in a genuinely shared endeavor of architectural discovery. Following celebrated work on the Royal Court, the Young Vic and the Stirling Prize winning Liverpool Everyman, there could be no better partnership on hand to now see through that vision with renewed commitment. The Capital group will bring unrivalled energy and experience to that process too. On a night of the year when the nation was otherwise preoccupied with a rather more urgent fund raising demand, when a Cyclone was ripping through another place far from Lavender Hill, the speed with which sorrow shifted to donation on social media platforms was a measure of special respect for what BAC stands for.
And of course it stands. It was a Town Hall after all. It still is. It was never meant to be a theatre with its ephemeral touch. It is a building rooted in its neighbourhood and it would take a good deal more than a bit of combustibility to see it off. The fire brigade made sure of that, they knew they were dealing with a solid piece of work. But those foundations should now support something remarkable again. At this moment of greatest challenge those with responsibility for the building and those who bring daily life to the building will ensure that it redoubles its radical promise. This need not pay undue respect to what has been lost, but rather boldly go where a building called Battersea Arts Centre needs to go. That is up, and out, and all about, with no stinting on the materials, getting to those parts that other theatres would love to reach.
Written 4.20pm, Friday 20th March 2015
Director Performance Foundation
Professor of Theatre, King’s College London