by Steven Connor to accompany the exhibition In the Shadows of Heaven at Turner Contemporary, Margate in 2004, following Max Mosscrop’s residency at the Theatre Royal Margate.
There is something bizarre about the architecture of theatres. Theatres are solid structures, visibly and continuously present – in the case of the Theatre Royal Margate, which has the oldest stage in Britain, for more than two hundred years. And yet the theatre builds itself anew, weekly, nightly, as sets are struck and rebuilt, new rigging flown, new props and furniture wheeled in. Even in their present sedentary conditions, theatres never quite put off the vagrancy which is at their beginnings. In medieval theatre, the scene may originally have been a wagon, or moveable scaffold. In the Corpus Christi pageant of the Flood, the stage took the form of a ship that was at the same time the world. The circus tent allows and requires the literal demolition and rebuilding of its scene as it moves from place to place. Where the medieval stage-wagon and the circus tent provided temporary settings for familiar and recurring stories, theatres provide permanent frames for changeable spectacles.
The physical fabric of theatre, the stuff its dreams are made on, seems to reproduce this contrast between the seeming solidity of a theatre, and the volatility of what transpires in it. On the one hand, theatres like to display a sort of extravagant gravitas, with columns, facades and friezes that suggest banks, temples or ministries. And yet theatre’s fittings, fixtures and ornaments seem to give their fragile, flaky game away: in the brittle glitter of their curlicues and the melt-in the mouth meringue of swags and sweeps and flourishes, the traditional style of theatrical ornamentation is a kind of architectural spun sugar, at once edible and aerated.
This duality makes theatres hard-soft, heavy-light, solemn-silly places, made more of sound and fury, putty and air, than substance. One of the many haunting stories associated with Margate’s Theatre Royal puts the question of weight into the scale. A dismissed actor is said to have taken a box and precipitated himself to his death in the orchestra pit. One witness of its ghostly reenactment reports hearing a thud and seeing dust rise from the putative place of the impact. (Measuring the doll’s-house height of the highest box, one wonders how it would be possible to do more than sprain an ankle from such a leap.)
Max Mosscrop has met before with this seeming substance, substance of seeming, in Travesty, a project in which he modelled architectural ornaments out of paper and paperclips. And there, hanging from the middle of the glorious polychrome plaster wheel on the ceiling of the Theatre Royal Margate is an inverted lampshade that might have come straight out of that sequence. Now, in his new work, he seems to have shipped the whole building into a kind of weightless outer space.
Time and Tide
The theatre is a place of continuous mutation, one show giving way to another, as wave swallows wave. But this periodicity is not chaotic, it is seasonal, even tidal. When it was originally given its Royal Charter, the theatre in Margate, in common with other theatres of the time, was permitted to stage performances only from 1st May to October 31st. (It temporarily lost its royal name and the monopoly it conferred in 1843, as a result of an illicit Christmas show.) This cyclicity seems to be taken up and repeated in the conspicuous circularity of the architecture and ornament of the Theatre Royal. No theatre could be more in, or of, the round as this. From the highest seats in the circle, your gaze funnels irresistibly down towards the stage. Rolling your head back in the stalls, you see a great, spoked zodiacal wheel in the ceiling. In In the Shadow of Heaven, a series of video works made during his period as artist-in-residence at the Theatre Royal, Max Mosscrop has found and made other circles and orbitings. His new work turns the theatre into a spectral engine, setting it slowly spinning around its own axis, or its many axes. If one attempts to circumnavigate the theatre, clambering behind, beside and beneath the stage, one easily loses one’s bearings, a feature that is preserved in Max Mosscrop’s gyroramas, which disclose everything to the revolving eye apart from where one oneself is supposed to be. It is as though the theatre were being given a gaze with which to observe itself. Early theatrical posters used to promise that acrobats and gymnasts would display their ‘evolutions’ for public benefit: presented here are the theatre’s revolutions, the playhouse in playback. We might remember that the theatre has frequently been visited after hours by psychic researchers, whose remote-controlled equipment is recalled by the home-made apparatus Max Mosscrop used to allow his camera to conduct its indoor tours d’horizon.
A theatre is a ‘play-house’: not just a space that houses plays and players, but a place that likes to play house. Everything about the backstage areas of the Theatre Royal suggests an abandoned house or series of sets representing abandoned houses. There are boxrooms crammed with aged props, sofas spilling stuffing, wardrobes of different vintages, mirrors, of every size and style. Nothing is shipshape, nothing quite meets your eye, nothing is quite in place, quite of the present.
But there is something else to notice about the Theatre Royal, something it has in common with certain other structures, especially pubs. Where original photographs show the theatre facing squarely on to the street, its main entrance has slowly shifted about, so that it now comes to a point, suggesting perhaps the nudging prow of a ship.
The analogies between theatres and ships have often been noted. The great arborescence of English theatre in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seems to have been in part a seafaring phenomenon, taking place in theatres like Shakespeare’s Globe made of the same wood as the ships of the merchants and explorers who were roaming the world and bringing back the tales that would make plays like The Tempest. Maritime motifs recur with particular insistence through the history of the Theatre Royal. The earliest theatre in Margate was a stable at the back of an inn called The Fountain which was rented to a retired sea captain called Charles Mate. After a Royal Charter was obtained for a theatre in Margate, Mate began building a theatre on the present site in September 1786, using second-hand timbers from a decommissioned ship to build the fly-tower. There is nowhere in any theatre that is more ship-like than the flies, with their thickly-coiled ropes, cleats, winches and reefed canvases.
A briny air breathed through much of the very early repertory of the theatre. Alongside established comic favorites like he Rivals, The Beggar’s Opera, She Stoops to Conquer and The Beaux’ Stratagem, there were shows like The Waterman, which opened on 2 August 1794, and was still being revived two seasons’ later, along with The Doldrum, which had a short run in August 1796, and The Poor Sailor: Or, Little Bob and Little Ben with parts for Captain Battledore, Compass, Bumbo, Freakish and O’Daub. Even what one would think of as a thoroughly landlocked play like the popular Mountaineers featured an interlude during the 1796 season called Naval Gratitude: Or the Tars of Old England (the cast list includes ‘Tom Grog’, ‘Ben Hatchway’ and ‘Sam Stern’). A comic opera called The Shipwreck featured in a double bill with Wives As They Were and Wives As They Are in the following year and featured parts for characters called Henry Hawser, Shark and Plunderer. Shipwreck was a popular theme in the Margate theatre, with two shows, or possibly the same show under two different titles, featuring during August in the inaugural season: Mariners or the Kentish Shipwreck and The Brothers, or the Fortunate Shipwreck. This maritime self-identification surfaces in an address made to the audience by the Victorian actor-manageress Sarah Thorne, after the refit of the theatre in 1861, in which she styled herself ‘the captain of a ship that has just left the harbour and was spreading her sail in the breeze’.
Seaside theatres can acquire a particularly stranded, washed-up air, none more so than the Theatre Royal, which has spent many years, like a resting actor, or a sailor between voyages, moonlighting as a chapel, warehouse, barracks, bingo-hall and wrestling stadium. Perhaps, as the close proximity of the Globe to the Golden Hinde in dry-dock on London’s Bankside suggests, there is something amphibious about all theatres.
In their effort to create alternative worlds, theatres insulate themselves, keeping the outside at bay, as ships do, with careful sealing and caulking. But theatres, like ships, leak. Seaside theatres seem particularly prone to the penetrative effects of damp and saline air. It seems appropriate that another of Max Mosscrop’s recent projects, Holm, undertook the imaginary reconstruction of a house on the shore which had been abandoned after flooding. For the reconstruction, Mosscrop chose bog-oak, wood that has been saturated over centuries with water. Most theatres are at risk from their extreme combustibility. The Theatre Royal has largely avoided damage by fire, the great dread of all theatre managers and sea captains, but fire hoses caused serious flooding in 1987. Your nose informs you of the damp still hoarded in the curling wallpaper, the nibbling encroachments of water. The backstage areas are all plumbing and ducts, with sinks everywhere, suggesting secret communication with the water (the stage trapdoor was once said to lead to a smuggler’s cave). Their swirling outflows are a concentric microcosm of the larger circumvolutions of the theatre’s space.
The orbs and orbits of Mosscrop’s In the Shadow of Heaven make an elaborate orrery of the Theatre Royal. But nowhere is one more exposed to and dependent upon the stars than at sea, and there are many rhymes between the marine and the celestial. So perhaps it is also as a kind of floating observatory that the theatre is here being remade, sea being let into it along with sky. Theatres can sometimes literally take to the water. Charles Mate had a theatrical rival in Margate, a Mrs Sarah Baker. In the face of the broadside from the new Theatre Royal, her wooden theatre was dismantled, taken by sea to Faversham, and there reassembled. Perhaps Max Mosscrop has done something similar, curling the theatre up like a ship in a bottle, transporting it overland to Droit House, the old harbour-master’s residence, there to let it round itself out, within sound and smell of the churning North Sea, the wide sky wheeling above it.
| Steven Connor | London Consortium | School of English and Humanities | Birkbeck |