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Features Published 29 April 2014

The City and the City

In the latest in our series on theatre design, Alice Saville talks to Helen Scarlett O’Neill about the making of Venice Preserv’d and the staging of La Serenissima in Deptford for The Spectators Guild.
Alice Saville

A peddle-powered Popemobile, three gondolas gliding through Deptford’s muddied waters, a carnival parade that follows the route of the old Greenwich Fair, commedia performances, and audiences in bin-bag ruffs and paper plate headgear; Helen Scarlett O’Neill’s design for Thomas Otway’s tragedy Venice Preserv’d plans to collide 17th century Venice with a slightly less, or otherly, storied floating city. That is, the half-reluctantly regenerating docklands of South East London, and specifically, the unpoetically named Paynes & Borthwick Wharf.

As half of newly formed production company The Spectators’ Guild, she explains that “we wanted to find Venice in London, and the Wharf fitted fabulously. It’s on the waterfront, the arches are of Italianate style, and even this modern tower that’s gone up is in the right place for the clocktower, where they would usually do the Flight of the Angel (an acrobatic carnival feat dating back to the sixteenth century). The comparison was wonderful.” Still, as she explains, the brick arches were actually built as a practicality, to allow vast marine engines to be constructed and rolled out onto ships on the pier outside, and the development has also housed 30,000 carcasses in its time as a meat-processing plant, a mechanical echo of the site’s use, far earlier, as grazing land for royal cattle. The site’s latest strange reversal of fortunes is to bear the ongoing construction, inside the enticingly-arched brick shell of the Wharf, of “a riverside development providing 257 highly specified one, two and three bedroom apartments in a comprehensively landscaped setting.”

As luck would have it, “fortunately the developers were up for some 17th century Venetian action; the project leader is actually a bit of a theatre benefactor, and loved that it would do something for the building. There’s also going to be a gallery and restaurant here – a cultural space – so he wanted to put it on the map and generate footfall and interest for it. You need to bring life to the area as well as people, so it kind of works brilliantly both ways.”

The merging of worlds.

The merging of worlds.

Propped up with scaffolding, you can see the old brick factory walls with glassy apartment blocks shooting up within them, almost independently of their crumbling wrapper; O’Neill finds that “it’s a strange contrast, and one which works extremely well for the play, which is all about luxury with rot and decay under it.” The contrast feels especially acute as we pass neatly arranged water features and bark-chip surrounded evergreen plants are assailed on all sides by wheelbarrows, builders’ debris and bits of pipe. Working within the flux has some perks, and some anomalies. As we toured the site, routes were blocked off or confused security guards tried to send us away. A vulnerably cream-carpeted two bedroom apartment is currently playing the part of the actors’ green room. And the production has to fit around the needs of the developers, too “we’ve got the design schedule, the builder’s schedule, and the rehearsal schedule to juggle. The builders are also making some of our set, which has been…interesting. And although our team don’t usually get up that early, we’ve learnt that if you’re not here at eight, all the decisions get made without you.”

What’s being built is a “time-clash” between 17th century Venice, 17th century London, and the present day, introduced by a freshly-commissioned prologue by Owen McCafferty. “It works fantastically well; it’s about comparing on one side Canary Wharf, and on the other side Venice, old and new, what’s similar, what’s different.” It’s a pairing echoed by the “beautiful flashy big world of the carnival, then underneath the rotting Venice, which we’ve created using scaffolding and builder’s plastic.” Material wealth is a central theme of Thomas Otway’s play, first staged in 1682, which used Venice as a watery veil for poignant references to Restoration London’s political and social state. As Helen Scarlett O’Neill  explains, “the play is about when the rug is pulled from beneath you and your debts are called in – the carnival of life collapsing in on you.” Poignantly, the play’s Senate scenes are played against a mesh backdrop, through which the lights of the City’s rather more technologically advanced moneylenders across the river will be seen as night falls. And to heighten the links still further, the audience change their pounds for (specially forged) ducats with a moneylender character, lodged inside a Venetian carnival style maquette of the Canary Wharf.

Venice Preserv'd Photos; Johan Persson

Venice Preserv’d Photos; Johan Persson

Of course, the monetisation of immersive theatre is both high-profile, and problematic – especially as Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in New York tips ever closer into theme park territory, while their London show The Drowned Man’s closing is announced. As O’Neill emphasises, “immersive productions are just so expensive to put on – it’s just such a crazy, crazy thing to build a world is almost the equivalent of building three small theatres. In terms of commercial opportunities where there’s a true partnership – like here where there’s a building that wants people to visit it and a production that wants the building for its aesthetic – then it marries together really well. Venice Preserv’d has tickets at different price levels – rising to a steep £45 for the full boat trip and seating to watch the show. In a half lovely, half faintly uncomfortable nod to the show’s characters’ own financial travails, though, “we have concessions for anyone who can prove they’re in debt, if they bring their bank balance or student loan agreement or bailiff’s letter. As part of the front of house paraphenalia we have a debt book, which we’ll enter their names into to be used as part of the show later – it ties nicely into the narrative.”

Deptford’s indebted population of arts students from nearby Goldsmiths College and Trinity Laban and well-established local community are increasingly being joined by wealthier migrants, attracted by shiny waterfront developments and even a new Waitrose. Venice Preserv’d is stepping into the heart of these tensions around gentrification. O’Neill explains that “we’re next door to the Master Shipwright’s House (a lovingly restored local landmark dating to 1708) and one evening they shouted out “where are you?” and we said “Venice!” But then they said “Do you think you’re in Greenwich?” And it feels like this building is on the divide. They’re building a bridge over the creek, and the waterfront is going to change dramatically.” For now, the inhabitants of the Wharf are at peace with their surroundings. The junior sailors at the AHOY centre nearby “are some of the best people I’ve ever met. They’re young carpenters who are making the prows and sterns for our boats, and other bits of our set including a torture wheel for the finale.”  They even took to sea in costume for the show’s Youtube trailer.

The experience is designed to be even more of a dip into the world of the play for the audience, who are encouraged to come in costume for an hour-long carnival parade to the venue, finishing up on a jetty overlooking the Thames – “it’s our St Mark’s Square.” This parade is central to O’Neill’s design, as “the images I find most exciting are about the audience – whether they’re on these chairs on top of each other stacked to the rafters, or walking on walkways to the realtos with water underneath them that we’ve built, or becoming a sea of red.”  Her set is a sumptous mix of frescoed naturalism and industrial grit, enlivened with installations and sculpture commissioned by a whole team of artists and designers.  “I’m working with so many people to realise the project that I lose some of the traditional roles of the designer, but I’ve gained so much in terms of shaping the carnival pre-narrative on a conceptual level.” The parade evolves from a “chaotic, fantastic, plastic start as characters add more and more period elements. We don’t want the audience to come in corsets and full skirts and everything. They can if they want to, but we’re doing how-to videos for making ruffs and headdresses out of bin bags and plastic, and actually you can make fantastic structural things.”

She’s keen to move away from the manufacturer tat-luxe that generations of tourism to Venice have spawned. “ When you look at the paintings of Pietro Longhi it’s not all about the petite corset or restrictive doublet, it’s these beautiful capes that are like layers of lace, it’s about hedonism and the audience being able to move. Our carnival aesthetic has a much more rebellious, riotous kind of feeling, taking on elements from the commedia dell’arte. But there’s also an awful lot of modern 17th century we didn’t really expect, but when you look it’s so there. A doublet is like a  shellsuit in a way, or Harlequino’s diamond pattern is like so many jumpers or cardigans that people have.”

Getting theatre-goers to raid their wardrobes and kitchen cupboards in an artistic kind of self-mockery is all part of O’Neill’s  interest in “how you can make the audience tell the story to the audience, so they’re part of the set and part of the action.” After graduating from St Martin’s BA Theatre Design course, she explains that “one of my first experiences was working on the area design for Punchdrunk’s Faust. It made me think, ‘what if you take away the masks, what if you show bits of architecture that were covered up or weren’t used?’ It was a fantastic production, but it also solidified my thoughts, and made me want to try and explore different things.”  These have included Unfashion shows, in collaboration of Japanese fashion designer Kumiko Tani and Russian director Pavel Rudanovsky, and, in a more direct antecedent to Venice Preserv’d, a promenade performance of Hamlet on the opposite bank of the Thames, directed by Yuko Iwata.

More recently, O’Neill and director Charlotte Westenra have become co-artistic directors of the newly-formed production company, The Spectators’ Guild  in what looks like a direct nod to this ethos – their slogan: “classic stagecraft, immersive worlds”. For a designer who built her career round immersive theatre, she explains that this company involves “a new relationship for me because I haven’t done anything which is a play and a text for a very long time –  the richness of the text is fabulous to work with. I’m also new to working so closely with the director and actors. At Secret Cinema, I found that they’re rehearsing like mad and we’re dressing and designing like mad, so I’ve never been this close to the acting process.” She joined “immersive experiential film company” Secret Cinema at its very beginnings in 2008, for the third production, when it was still “very much a walk-through experience on your way to a cinema. It was always me and (founder) Fabian Riggall going to buildings and thinking how to use them, then Fabian would write a creative plan, a structure to hang everything together, and that would be given to a director. But when I worked on Lawrence of Arabia and the audience were separated into the tribes Lawrence is trying to unite, we were responding to them as much as they were responding to us. And that was really exciting. And I’ve always welcomed what Fabian says, which is all about blurring the lines between audience member and performer.”

O’Neill  hasn’t acted out her own Venice story; “I didn’t go, kind of on purpose – Otway the playwright never went to Venice so the Venice of his mind was what he was using to talk about London and England. For me, Venice is this crazy place where every street is water and all the buildings are sinking, and where there are huge cruise liners going through these narrow streets that are decaying.  Being realistically Venetian isn’t, for me, the most relevant part of it – it’s the Venice of our minds, and all its context and connotations.” Audience members bent on finding their own City of Masks in South London will realise that it’s fairly well disguised. They’ll meet at the wreck of the Cutty Sark, newly encased post-fire in a modern architect’s armature of glass and metal, and walk into the heart of a Deptford that’s rapidly transforming derelict buildings into developers’ dreams.  The ninteenth-century novelist Henry James, ever acerbic, quipped that “though there are some disagreeable things in Venice there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” Here, the visitors will be finding each other, hopefully, agreeably as much as Venice – and rather than freeform exploration, “it’s about them sharing the same experience and story, and there’s something that’s so powerful about that.”

Venice Preserv’d runs at Paynes and Borthwick Wharf, Deptford, until 8th June 2014. For more on Helen Scarlett O’Neill’s work, visit her website.

More from the Exeunt design series:

Alice Saville in conversation with Joanna Scotcher.

Catherine Love in conversation with Tom Scutt.

Dan Hutton in conversation with Chloe Lamford.

Dan Hutton in conversation with Es Devlin.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

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