Academic journal article TheatreForum

Fragments of a Life: Performing History in Newington Green

Academic journal article TheatreForum

Fragments of a Life: Performing History in Newington Green

Article excerpt

It is a dark, clear night in Newington Green, north London, as a large group of people move into the tree-lined space of the green itself. Cameras, both film and video, are visible throughout the crowd. It is difficult to tell at times who is a spectator and who is a bona fide film worker. Traffic swirls around the square and the sporadic beams of headlights join film lights casting ominous shadows. The constant whir of the circling traffic creates a background noise that serves to underscore the activity.

This describes one of two settings in a recent ambitious work created by the London-based company Fragments and Monuments entitled Wollstonecraft Live! The seven performances of this multi-media, site-specific work took place between 21 and 24 September 2005. The company, founded in 1996 by director Anna Birch and scenographer Madelon Schwitz, produced a trilogy of site-based productions in its first four years. The most well know of those is Di's Midsummer Night Party (2000). The company name evokes a dialectic between the small and broken and the large and permanent. In Dis Midsummer Night Party multiple masked Princess Dianas move through an eighteenth-century aristocratic house. The smallness of the multiple women and their fractured multiplicity plays against the large, sedentary character of the building.

Wollstonecraft Live!, conceived by Anna Birch and Kaethe Fine and directed by Birch, continues to pursue the dialectic between fragments and monuments. The non-linear, fragmented script, written by Fine, veers wildly between the articulate and often poetic nineteenth-century prose of Mary Wollstonecraft's books and letters and the crass "media speak" and slang of our century. The performance presents these fragments of source material and information to the audience in a way that interrogates what it means to tell a story. In contrast to the slippery fragments of "evidence" is the "monument."

The performance begins inside the Unitarian Chapel on Newington Green. As in Di's Midsummer Night Party, Wollstonecraft Live! profits from making connections between a "real" historical building and the fictional calling up of the piece's eponymous heroine. The chapel was built in 1708 and has the distinction of being the oldest non-conformist place of worship still in use in London. Here is where the historical Wollstonecraft actually worshipped, here she sat, here she delivered a famous speech against slavery, and it is here that we witness her come to life, so to speak, in the ways that live performance conjures up "ghosts," as Marvin Carlson articulates in his thought-provoking Haunted Stage. Carlson sees the practice of theatre as one which recycles stories, designs, architecture, etc. that become entwined with the memories of its spectators. By placing portions of WoIlstonecraft s story in the Unitarian Chapel, the building itself becomes a ghost machine.

Born in 1759 and living an itinerant life with her poverty stricken family, Wollstonecraft opened a school in Newington Green in 1784. Just a small village on the outskirts of London at this time, Newington Green was a hotbed of radical political views and intellectual dissent. Raised an Anglican, Mary began to attend the Dissenting Chapel (now named the Unitarian Chapel) in Newington Green, the leader of which was Reverend Richard Price. Price was notorious for supporting American independence and the French Revolution, and his home became a meeting place for other leading radicals. It was here that Mary was encouraged to write Thoughts on the Education of Girls (1786), here she became known for her articulate independent thinking.

The Unitarian Chapel is tangible evidence of an era that had a profound influence on religious and political ideas in Britain, and it is here that Fragments and Monuments begins its performance. With the audience seated in the hard wooden pews of the eighteenth century, a film is projected at the front of the chapel. …

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