Ovalhouse has a long history of countering the mainstream. In 1963 it staged a production of A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, a radical play for its day, that deals with questions of class, race, gender and homosexuality – at a time when homosexuality was still illegal. Particularly daring, then, that its cast was not professional actors but a collection of local young people, directed by the leader of their South London youth club.
By the 1960s and 1970s Ovalhouse had become a major centre for early experimental theatre. A young Pierce Brosnan once shared a stage with a donkey. I asked Artistic Director Deborah Bestwick how it made that step, from youth group to cultural innovator: “Just by a general openness to people making theatre with new ideas, and not wishing to delineate between the youth arts practice and the professional theatre practice.” It reveals much about the ethos of the theatre that it grew out of a youth project, given Ovalhouse’s commitment to working with young people today, integrating them into its professional programme. “It’s not really art if it’s just sort of commenting on the cosy, the well-known and the complacent,” says Bestwick, “and I think that’s why Ovalhouse has always had such a strong relationship with artistic diversity, because many of the people with the most important things to say in public are those who are not enjoying the complacent luxuries of mainstream life.”
It is out of this tradition that Counterculture 50 has grown. “We had been looking to mark and celebrate our fiftieth anniversary in a way that was completely coherent with the work that we do,” Bestwick says, “so that we could turn our work into the celebration – make it highlight the history, relevance, vision and artistic policy of Ovalhouse now, and how that relates to the past 50 years.” Directors of Theatre Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Rachel Briscoe soon came up with the idea of five commissions, one for each decade of the theatre’s history, brought together by the theme “counterculture”. As Bestwick points out, what people mean by counterculture has changed over the decades. I asked one of those commissioned, the showbiz multi-tasker Boogaloo Stu, what the term means to him: “To me it’s anything that goes against the grain, that doesn’t conform in a traditional, expected way. And I’m always intrigued by anything confrontational, that also entertains.”
Stu is a DJ, presenter, performer and part-time pop star, and his show, Crimplene Millionaire, is a 1970s-inspired large-scale board game set out within the theatre space. The audience throw the dice, and as the pieces move around the board, they land on squares that prompt a variety of mini-performances, video clips and songs. Stu says, “The content of the game explores the DIY arty subcultures from the decade that were sidelined, ignored, forgotten, uncredited. It’s edutainment, and also extremely silly. At the end, the winning team get do do something unspeakable to Orville The Duck.” He won’t give any more away.
Other plays coming up in the season include: The Lady’s Not For Walking Like an Egyptian by Mars.tarrab, an exploration of the political texts and pop lyrics of the 1980s, with plenty of Lycra legwarmers thrown in; Bilimankhwe Arts’s retelling of Love of Trial, which intercuts Stanley Kenani’s Caine story of illegal homosexuality in Malawi with the press frenzy surrounding George Michael’s 1998 arrest for “lewd conduct” in an LA public toilet; and anarchic punk theatre group 2headedpigeon’s Kinky, a sexy cabaret about politics and our right to a private life in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey.
“We wanted contemporary artists making radical theatre who would use their own responses to particular things going on in those decades to inform the work that they were making now”, says Bestwick. The range of responses, not just in terms of content, but also in terms of genre and presentation, is testimony to the openness of the writers’ brief.
I ask if she thinks it is important for theatres to look at their place in the broader cultural landscape of a city and to take stock from time to time. “I think it’s absolutely essential. If the arts are to remain a live, voltage force, giving energy to society, then we can’t be apart from it. This is why it’s important to create a dialogue with a really inclusive section of the community. A part of Ovalhouse staying radical is that we are responsive to artists and we are responsive to the young people we work with. We’re not a prescriptive structure telling people what to do. And if art is to be meaningful, relevant and energising, then it needs to have the input of a diversity of all of the people in our society.”
Besides its Counterculture 50 season, other events lined up to celebrate this important year for Ovalhouse include a group of young people working on a new version of A Taste of Honey, and an exhibition about the radical theatre movement and its inseparable history from the development of housing co-ops – the subject of a book being written by Unfinished Histories. Meanwhile, anyone who has ever been involved in Ovalhouse is invited to contribute via its website to the growing archives, where documentation from across the half-century of the theatre’s life is being brought together in one place for the first time.
But as Bestwick is keen to point out: “There’s no point in us reflecting on the history of Ovalhouse as if it were some sort of feature of the heritage industry, unless we are looking forward to make it fit for the future and meaningful for the next 50 years. This is not an exercise in nostalgia, it’s an exercise in gingering ourselves up for the next 50 years.”
The Counterculture 50 season takes place at Ovalhouse until 2 March 2013. For more details: www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/category/counterculture-50
Get 25% off of tickets in the Counterculture 50 Season when you book for more than one show in the season: www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/booktickets/Crimplene
Image credit: Boogaloo Stu’s Crimplene Millionaire