Palimpsest’s Katherine Tozer delves into the rich, but bittersweet lives of the Pre-Raphaelites as the company conjure with ghosts at William Morris’ former home, The National Trust’s Red House, in If I Can, a multi-media, immersive production.
“Forget six counties overhung with smoke, forget the snorting steam and the piston stroke, forget the spreading of the hideous town, the spreading of the sore. Think rather of the packhorse on the down”.
So wrote William Morris, poet, socialist, interior designer and cuckold.
An idealistic young Morris left the ‘spreading sore’ of London’ to set up home with his new bride Janey Burden, amongst the clean air and fresh apple orchards of Kent at the tail end of the 1850s.
There they built a fairy tale castle and embellished it with the help of the enfants terrible Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lizzie Siddal and the Burne-Jones.
But by 1865 they were back in central London, Siddal was dead and the artist’s commune was no more.
And by 2016 those same apple orchards are now urban Bexleyheath; Zone 5 of Greater London. The ‘sore’ has spread yet further still and shows no sign of stopping. And the empty Grade 1 listed Red House sits, poetically marooned amidst a hotchpotch of 1930s bungalows and speed humps.
John Chambers (composer) and I first took the train from Charing Cross, out past Blackheath to Bexleyheath, 18 months ago. We had been invited by Robynn Finney, House and Garden Manager at Red House.
Robynn was fresh from her role as custodian at Sutton House, NT, Hackney, where she had programmed an exciting roster of events. And she had been the first curator of an historic London house to sign up to Palimpsest’s inaugural production of Hedda Gabler, back in 2014.
Staged at eight historic houses across the Capital, Hedda was a Time Out Top Ten show. As Palimpsest’s calling card, it swiftly led to commissions for the original plays The Muse and Playing To The Crowd, for Leighton House and Dr Johnson’s House respectively.
Digging into the archive of each of these houses, I wrote the scripts, and John Chambers, whom I had worked with on Fine Line’s production Out of the Cage at Park Theatre, wrote the original score for The Muse.
John also bears an unmistakeable (and uncanny) resemblance to the young William Morris. When we met Robynn to discuss a National Trust commission exploring the lives and loves of the Pre-Raphaelites that had built and decorated Red House, she was immediately struck by how much John embodied the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.
So, not only did he compose and build the soundscape for the piece, John voices and plays William Morris. And having been so fully invested in the piece after 18 months of researching, writing and composing, the effect is electric. Almost as if we have summoned William Morris back into being, to pace the halls he built.
The quiet, cold beauty and sadness of the empty property, deemed by Rossetti to be ‘more a poem than a house’, left us keen from the beginning that this should be an audio drama (experienced with headsets and mp3 players), leaving the audience members free to roam the candlelit enclave over the winter season of 2016.
Robynn was also intent on a live action element and we relished the possibility of staging the production with six Palimpsest actors embodying the characters as they had lived and loved at the house 160 years ago.
The era that the second wave of Pre-Raphaelites occupied the house was wrought with hardship. Two babies died over that five year period, Lizzie Siddal succumbed to her laudanum addiction and Janey, Morris’ young wife, embarked upon a life-long love affair with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which broke Morris’ heart.
Using the extant prose, poetry, political tracts, engravings and inscriptions the troupe left behind, we have woven our piece.
John has recorded the creaks and groans the house makes and mixed them with reinterpretations of music that William is known to have gifted to Janey (and played in the very same drawing room). The effect is ghostly and unspeakably sad. It has left many an audience member in tears at the end.
A dark gothic antidote to the Yuletide candlelit cheer indeed.
If I Can is at The Red House on December 16-18, twice a night at 7.30/8.30pm