‘It was the bunker for exploratory beliefs, in the form of plays, philosophical debate, poetry and marshal-amplified rock that quaked round the fat and lime-mortared drum like a constantly replayed pile-up on the M1’.
‘A Victorian train-shed built like a brick privy….’
‘A big, butch bothy…’
‘Surplus army coats, body odour…charred and onion-ringed comestibles from the dodgy concession stands, tinnitus…like angry wasps on helium…wedged in your ears.’
So the Roundhouse at Chalk Farm was variously described during its second great incarnation from 1964 to 1983. If the term ‘arts arena’ means a laboratory for thinking about and presenting arts from all cultures and disciplines, in a way that energises connections between exhibition, performance, debate, festival, lecture and conference, then it was the first of its kind in this country. And it was the brainchild of an eminent English playwright.
The Roundhouse was a historic original, purpose- built in 1865 to service locomotives. A turn-table encircled by 24 cast iron columns dominated the interior, with an intricate cat’s cradle of thin interconnecting supports above. Though completely pragmatic in design, the interior had that stripped back, aesthetic beauty that some Victorian industrial architecture seems to acquire by accident. The symmetry and spareness of linked Doric columns around a central space evoked the design of classical theatre. Even in early etchings ,the interior has a sense of enigma and presence.
The building went on to function as a warehouse after becoming redundant as an engine shed, and fell into disuse just before World War 11. It was not to be re-opened until the early 1960s.
In London, post-war austerity had given way to a new wave of self-expression and liberation: there was a sense of disillusion with the existing order and the era of the Swinging Sixties was poised to begin. The anti-establishment feeling had already made its impact on the arts and the so-called angry young men’ of the mid-1950s – dissenting, radical and even anarchic in their views – were focusing on ‘gritty’ social realism. In the theatre, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a landmark play, sparking off a new genre – shocking and deeply distasteful to some – known as ‘kitchen sink drama.’ In both theatre and the novel there was a new emphasis on working class people and their disenchantment with an intelligentsia seen as largely upper-class and hopelessly out-of-touch.
Prominent among the new dramatists was Arnold Wesker. The commercial success of his ‘Trilogy’ of 1960 enabled him to put into action his liberal-radical ideas. The arts in Britain were ‘a mean joke’, he declared; culture should be freely available and accessible to all, not just to an elite.
His bold plan was to establish an inclusive arts centre which would provide a secure venue for performers. A permanent company of actors, a resident orchestra and jazz band were envisaged, along with provision for a wide variety of concerts, plays and other forms of artistic expression. There were, over a twenty year period, to be an art gallery, library, dance hall, work-shops, a youth club and a restaurant.But where to find a suitable space?
Wesker’s recognition of the potential of the Roundhouse was inspired. A campaign to raise funds to refurbish it was launched and, re-named as Centre 42, it opened as a live entertainments venue in October 1966. The event was variously described as ‘epic’, ‘legendary’ and a ‘revolutionary event in English thinking and alternative music.’ An underground newspaper – International Times – was launched that evening and sugar lumps, handy for ingesting LSD, were allegedly handed out at the door. An unknown new group called Pink Floyd performed. They would be followed over the next few years by Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and bands such as The Rolling Stones, The Clash and The Yardbirds.
The Roundhouse was very far from the plush West End theatres where plays were usually performed.Its spare, graceful interior; the almost limitless potential of playing in a large circular space (no stuffy proscenium arch here) stimulated directors to experiment and innovate. Their treatment of Shakespeare was radical and the young director Peter Brook, already known for his convention-defying work, produced an account of The Tempest which provoked a critical storm. Tradition was swept aside in a house which had no seats and so blurred the line between audience and actors. Brook’s direction managed to include rape, sodomy and domination and the text was interspersed with mime, chanting and guttural noises. Some critics were baffled and begged to be told what it all meant; others declared that it was not Shakespeare at all but merely made occasional reference to the original. But in general, the production was acknowledged as something extraordinary and it was conceded that experimentation was healthy and necessary.
In 1969, the maverick director Tony Richardson cast Nicol Williamson in his production of Hamlet. Williamson was the notorious bad boy of the theatre but his talent was not in doubt. John Osborne judged him to be ‘the greatest actor since Marlon Brando’ and Olivier was quoted as saying that Williamson was his ‘closest challenger’ as the leading man of English-language theatre.
Williamson‘s Prince was biting and hostile. Unlike the beautifully articulated oration of former actors, his voice snarled with a nasal twang somewhere between Brummie and Glaswegian. Many playgoers had not experienced theatre in the round, or such an alarming proximity to the actors. They had never seen saliva fly. This Hamlet was nobody’s fool but had assessed the corrupt Danish court with the most penetrating acuity: the text was loaded with his loathing and blistering contempt. But, in contrast, his affection for Horatio showed him as warm and endearing, and the scene in Gertrude’s ‘closet’ was almost unbearably intimate: some felt like intrusive voyeurs and wanted to creep away in embarrassment. The bar, at the interval, was packed with people in passionate discussion of the play.
The performance was judged as ‘iconoclastic’, ‘touched by genius’and ‘a benchmark’. Michael Billington called it the most exciting Hamlet for more than a decade, while the P.M. Harold Wilson described it at length in a meeting with the U.S. President, Richard Nixon. The role had been redefined.
Steven Berkoff’s Hamlet of 1980 followed. The director wanted to offer ‘simple uncluttered Shakespeare in the round’ but the audience was unprepared for a totally bare stage surrounded by actors in black, humming wind noises on the non-existent battlements of Elsinore. Props were minimal – there was even an absence of rapiers in the duel scene. But, after all, Shakespeare himself had set the trend, and the playwright turned out to be a member of the cast. Berkoff, in the leading role, wore a striped blue suit with punk-inspired accessories. Notices were unfavourable, however, and at least one reviewer was so negative that the inflammable Berkoff threatened to murder the man.
The Roundhouse went on to stage Catch My Soul, a rock musical based on Othello in which a blacked-up chorus line danced to Mexican music. It was unusual, but its impact was slight compared with the outrage and controversy caused by Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! Described in the tabloids as ‘The Nudest Show on Earth’, it contained ‘adult material’ and full-frontal nudity. The pro-censorship campaigner and battle-axe for ‘public decency’, Mary Whitehouse, claimed that the arts and the country in general were morally at risk from such a show. More moderate reviewers described it as ‘tasteful pornography for the thinking voyeur’.
We are used to all this today, but fifty years ago such productions were emphatically ground-breaking. No other venue had offered a programme where the works of Shakespeare, in particular, had been so deconstructed and reconstituted, so often violent and disturbingly surreal. They were, too, disrespectfully sandwiched between ear-splitting rock ‘n’roll gigs, where the audience circulated in a fog of cannabis smoke and alcohol.
In 1883, funds ran out and the Roundhouse fell silent. But its third incarnation was at hand: it was bought by a local businessman and remodelled as a performance space. A new wing was added and the underground area housed a ring of practice rooms, recording suites and digital resources. The great, circular main space, the iron columns and the rotunda remained untouched.
The new Roundhouse reopened in 2006. Its programme today is multidisciplinary and multicultural, reflecting every nuance of present day arts. Could this have happened without the almost-twenty years when it was the most controversial venue in London? It had been an icon of cultural change, through the hippy era to punk and post-punk. It spoke to the Free Love movement, to women’s ‘libbers’, civil rights activists, striking miners and black and musicians blasting out subversive music. It shocked and outraged, overturned traditional thinking and blatantly challenged establishment perceptions of what a work of art should be.
Wesker could not have known how comprehensively his vision was to be realised, or with what uninhibited and full-blooded vigour the arts at the Roundhouse were to develop and flourish. He would approve of what his performance arena had become and what it had achieved. The work goes on.
Bettina Harris, Library Support Assistant