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You are in: London > TV > Television > TV Features > High art, low entry

Production of Oxford Street. Photo: Johan Persson

Photo by Johan Persson

High art, low entry

The Royal Court moved its latest theatre production, Oxford Street, from Sloane Square to the shops in Elephant and Castle. Kurt Barling looks at an innovative attempt by high art to pull in new and diverse audiences.

Elephant and Castle shopping centre in South London has seen better days.   It was built at a time of high idealism in architecture.   The plan was to have the estates running along the New Cross road connected by modern urban walkways all above street level. 

Eventually you would be able to walk, so the plans went, from one end of Peckham to the other and end up in shopping nirvana.

Now, the walkways are gone and the estates are fast being demolished.  The shopping centre has been cut off from its hinterland.

It is still frequented by locals and has a daily market but many more people just pass it by in the daily commute to and from work.  The Elephant, as it is affectionately know locally, is now more famous for its road roundabout directing Londoners on their journeys south or into the City or West End.  

The Elephant nevertheless remains one of the most cosmopolitan shopping areas in London.    There are shops and stalls here you are unlikely to find together elsewhere in the capital.

That is one of the reasons the Royal Court chose such an unpromising venue to stage its play Oxford Street, written by the emerging playwright Levi David Addai.

"Getting diverse audiences into West End theatres isn’t as tough a job as it used to be, but it is still surprising how few minorities venture there"

Kurt Barling

Getting diverse audiences into the West End theatres isn’t as tough a job as it used to be, but it is still surprising how few minorities venture there.  When I joined the National Youth Theatre nearly 30 years ago there was very little engagement between the theatre and minorities, now great strides have been made in attracting minority talent to the stage.

Whereas even 10 years ago actors complained about the lack of material for minority actors, a range of young writers are now developing a catalogue of material which reflects modern Britain.   “Oxford Street” is a prime example of such work.

But getting diverse Britain to come to the theatre remains the last of the big challenges to making this form of high art accessible and relevant.  With funding dependent on demonstrating public value, showing that what you do is not driven by elitist attitudes is important.

On the other hand theatre has become increasingly dependent on commercial revenues to plug the gap of declining public subsidy.   So staging a play in a location which doesn’t attract a crowd could be seen as insane.

Often in the arts there is a fine line between insanity and inspiration and certainly the Royal Court in choosing the Elephant and Castle were looking to raise the game of attracting fresh interest in the work they offer.

A corner shop on the first floor of the shopping centre was transformed in to a working theatre space.

In some ways Addai’s play is ideally suited to the space.  Premiered last month at the Royal Court, Oxford Street is the setting for a fictional shop called Total Sports.   Security guard Kofi and his co-workers are used to explore the relationships in the workplace.    In a layered production director Dawn Walton, explores the humanity of the shop workers, all of whom seem to be there by accident on route to somewhere else.

The cast is full of well-known faces from Cyril Nri (The Bill) to Ashley Walters (Bullet Boy).  Commuters on their way to catch the train home could be seen craning necks to catch a glimpse of the play.    Some even stopped to watch.

The real shop floor is transformed into stage and auditorium.   Not only does this make the play extremely intimate but it gives it a sense of reality usually reserved for the big screen.   You are literally in the middle of and part of the action.

Oxford Street production. Johann Persson

Nathaniel Martello-White in Oxford St

So much has been said over the years about getting new audiences into the theatre but less is said about getting performances out to the spectators.    The Executive Director of the Royal Court said that this is a sign of things to come.   They have identified a number of venues which they are planning to use to stage future productions.

Actor Ashley Walters was raised in North Peckham, not more than half a mile from the Elephant.  For him, bringing “Oxford Street” into the heart of the community in this way is a form of engagement which has often been missing in the theatre.

Several members of the audience said it made them feel comfortable seeing a play in surroundings familiar to them rather than in the usual West End venue which they described as “posh”.  It also seemed to them to make theatrical performance more relevant to their lives.

Does any of this matter?   A conference at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre last week looked at the challenge of creating a cultural legacy from the London 2012 Games.   Speaker after speaker felt that the build up to the cultural Olympiad which is supposed to co-exist with the Capital’s Games presents genuine opportunities to engage people living in marginalised communities, especially young people, in the Arts and Sport.

The over-riding message of the conference was not necessarily new but it was simple; offering constructive distraction, through the arts and sport, can help with tackling youth crime. 

The Royal Court venture shows that some practitioners of the high arts are genuinely interested in encouraging engagement and participation in the Arts across the social spectrum.  

Starting from Beijing, if London is to make the most of the succeeding four years to create a cultural legacy, then there will need to be many more arts and sporting organisations following the spirit of what the Royal Court attempted at the Elephant.  Their initiative may have appeared mad, but it could be just the inspiration that young Londoners need.

Photos by Johan Persson

last updated: 23/06/2008 at 11:53
created: 23/06/2008

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