There was no mention of the eighteenth-century actress, playwright and novelist Elizabeth Inchbald in Exeunt’s recent roll-call of neglected female playwrights but she would certainly qualify. Her tragedy, The Massacre, following one family during the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, was written in 1792 at the height of the French Revolution. Perhaps due to its political sensitivity, Inchbald never submitted the play to the censor for public performance and it was rejected for publication. Instead, she circulated it in secret amongst her friends (the likes of Thomas Paine, Edmund Burke, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft). Director Rebecca McCutcheon and her company Lost Text/ Found Space’s site responsive production of Inchbald’s play, retitled Til We Meet in England, is only the second time The Massacre has been performed in the UK.
At the edge of an industrial estate in Peckham Rye are two derelict houses. We are welcomed in to the first room and offered a ‘cup of good cheer’, as we acclimatise to the space. I take in the peeling plaster and bare floorboards. Tiny chunks of masonry roll across the floor with each step I take. An audience member is taken by the hand and led further into the house, and I follow. In the back room, an old man polishes family heirlooms and I overhear him telling a fellow audience member how they were lost. A young man with haunted eyes frantically sands the wooden stairs. He asks an audience member to help him clean away the dust. A woman, dressed all in white, asks, ‘Are you a lover of words’? and hands them out on strips of paper. In the middle room, I help a pregnant woman hang her family photographs on nails sticking out of the peeling walls. She tells me she is not at home here.
Unlike some immersive theatre, Lost Space/ Found Text’s approach is gentle and intimate, guiding the audience through the performance and inviting them to participate in small ways. The performers’ refrain ‘Can you help me?’ is an invitation, not a command. At points we are disbursed around the house, encouraged to explore. We are guided together for key scenes, which unify the production and avoid the ‘fear of missing out’ effect, thereby circumventing the anxiety and dissatisfaction that can afflict immersive shows (cough Sleep No More cough cough).
One of the things I love about McCutcheon’s direction is her sensitivity to the ‘lost text’ and to the ‘found space’ in which she situates it. In 2013, McCutcheon invented a fictional gallery in which to situate Elizabeth Cary’s The Tragedy of Mariam, in an inspired reading of the play’s engagement with themes of privacy and authorship. For Til We Meet in England, the unhomely domestic space of the Peckham Safehouse offers scope for McCutcheon’s rich interpretation of Inchbald’s tragedy showing the intersection of the personal and the political; the family home is made un-safe by the intrusion of persecution. In some ways, the domestic scope of the tragedy makes the massacre comprehensible, by showing its impact on one family. By making Elizabeth Inchbald a character (the woman in white) in her production, McCutcheon shows that she was suffering from a very recognisable ‘bystander guilt’ in the eighteenth-century. Yet Til We Meet in England is a production rather than an adaptation. Inchbald’s original text is used, with judicious cuts, which breathes life in what might otherwise be a difficult play to watch.
Although The Massacre is technically a history play, and a historically distant one at that, what struck me most was how resonant its themes are with the current political situation, without this relevance ever seeming forced. Upstairs, I help the pregnant woman pack clothes and a teddy bear hurriedly into a suitcase, as she prepares to flee for her and her families’ lives. I listen as the old man tries to reason with the bloodthirsty leader of the mob that he once counted as a friend. ‘A neighbour who thinks differently from me is my enemy’, the mob leader retorts. The judge’s call for us to treat each other with kindness and dignity seems a timely reminder to preserve our common humanity in these troubled times. In the performers’ small requests of help from the audience seem to lie the seeds of a larger, humanitarian cry, ‘Can you help me?’
Til We Meet in England is on until 2nd December. Book tickets here.