It was probably the Peckham Pavilion at the Venice Biennale that cemented Peckham’s place in London’s art scene. Since then there has been a steady flow of journalists, hipsters and artists dropping in to study contemporary sculpture and relax in a trendy campari bar. But this art world has made little effort to reach out to, and integrate with, its host community.
So it was with some scepticism that I made my way to the brilliant Bussey Building for the launch of Theatre Local Peckham, the Royal Court’s second outing into a south London community to stage plays and theatre workshops. They’re hosted by Mickey Smith’s CLF art cafe, an unkempt converted factory normally home to drum and bass nights, community meetings and art fairs.
But I was wrong to be sceptical. The Royal Court’s artistic director spoke before the play of their Sloane Square theatre being exclusive, a place that many people might enjoy but would never visit because of its location. This emphasis on place ran through his talk: he wants the project to build a relationship in the community that will extend beyond the run of the two plays; the plays themselves being about how people live together.
The play we saw, by Debbie Tucker Green, was an unforgiving series of quiet – but sometimes explosive – confrontations.
A Rwandan woman repeatedly threw pleading questions at the man who killed her husband, challenging him to respond while he remained silent, shifting his body at first in unease, then in defiance, then unease. Three generations of a South African family waited for their enemy to appear, caught in a loop of concern about the hard chair while the mother stood apart, unable to sit until she got answers from the man who killed her eldest daughter twenty years ago. These and more stories wove around a dark, bare set of chairs and spotlights in the middle of the room.
This was not a play about the process of reconciliation so much as the pain and agitation that would form its backdrop.
I spoke after the play to Ivanno Jeremiah, who played the accused Rwandan man, about his background, the play, and what he thought it might mean to a Peckham audience:
I also managed to speak to Ruth Hawkins from the Royal Court, who had found my blog and invited me along to the launch. She put to rest any lingering doubt I had about this theatre landing in Peckham. Sorry about the sound quality, it was a noisy evening!
What I particularly like is the work with local schools. I spoke to a couple of local teachers – unfortunately the video is too noisy to be watchable. One, a drama teacher, told me her pigeon hole is “full to the brim with marketing from touring companies, theatre companies and site projects” trying to sell her tickets or workshops, so “it takes quite a lot to persuade us”. What sold this to her? The free writing workshops for kids being put in in their local area, connected to a play put on by a top notch theatre company.
The two plays are running until the 19th November, and you can pay what you like to see them. It would be great if this project was a real success, both for those putting the effort in and for the impact it might have on other arts groups looking to use Peckham’s cheap space.