Multi-storey story: Shakespeare in the (Peckham car) park

Holly Wiliams gets a taster of a thrilling take on ‘Titus Andronicus’

Two men in baggy sportswear and trainers are assaulting a young woman around a car park in south London; they spin and leap around her, throw her against a car’s bonnet and clamber over her, then grope her and drag her. All the while, she tries to talk them down – in iambic pentameter.

Because, don’t worry, you haven’t accidentally turned to a shocking story in the news pages: this is a key scene from a new production of Shakespeare’s most gruesome tragedies, Titus Andronicus. The violence may be carefully choreographed, but the urban decay setting is real enough: a new site-specific show, it’s set across two adjacent levels of a multi-storey car park in Peckham (albeit, the most gentrified multi-storey in the country, home to rooftop Campari bar Frank’s and Bold Tendencies, a project to host art shows in the space).

The director, Pia Furtado, had workshopped the play at the Barbican, but during that process, became determined to bring the tale of Roman revenge kicking and screaming into the modern world. She knew she wanted to make it dynamic and physical, but also that it should be grounded in a real-life location. Job done: a summary of this Titus is like a checklist of urban arts-meets-well-intentioned theatre practice – they use free running, beatboxing, an immersive staging, contemporary costumes and a community chorus of Peckham locals …

Having grown up in South London – “It’s, uh, ‘my hood’!” says Furtado with a hint of middle class embarrassment – and still a nearby resident, she knew Frank’s café and had already been thinking of the car park as a potential space when she heard Bold Tendencies were actively looking to host theatre projects. It seemed meant to be. 

“Car parks just are extraordinarily evocative spaces; there’s something about this” – she waves her hand over the wide stretches of brutal concrete, framing a stunning view across London that takes in the Shard and the Gherkin – “that’s hard to beat in terms of scale. It invites you to match it.”

Shakespeare’s bloody play is indeed a good match. “In my mind, the play had been lodged as a prequel to Lear, [in] that it was about an old man,” Furtado explains. “But when I workshopped it, I felt it was actually a very virile play. It’s a play that doesn’t sit in its head, it sits in its gut. You believe these people are in a place of red-blooded, gut responses – and there’s something very youthful to that, and something very urban. Somehow this architecture allows us to feed off it: you feel caged by it, but you can also understand the territorial nature of it – ‘this is my level, this is my floor!’”

In its settings and costumes, the production obviously alludes to modern-day gangland violence, but Furtado is avoiding going down the very gruesome route. While she insists you can’t do the play justice without a bit of flying fake blood, there won’t be buckets of the stuff as in Lucy Bailey’s recent production at the Globe (good job really: that famously made audience members – including, ahem, this one – faint, and going out cold on a cold concrete floor wouldn’t be much fun). Instead, they’re using the aggressive, swift energy of free running and breakdancing to create that feeling of violence and characters suddenly seeing red. “That’s why I was really interested in Parkour as a form. There’s something quite militaristic about the training, it’s very focused, but it’s also about responding to your environment in a really gutsy way, which it feels like all the characters in the play are used to doing.”

To achieve all this, they’ve put together an unusually mixed cast that includes Parkour runners, beatboxers, classical actors, physical theatre practitioners, and enthusiastic locals. Their Titus, Adam Burton, may have trod the boards at the RSC, but he’s young, lithe and lean, a far cry from your usual battle-scarred relic. But all the cast have been chosen for their physical abilities, as well as their acting skills, making it through a gruelling, strength-proving audition process. Watching rehearsals, it’s striking to note that when not in a scene, actors are as likely to drop into a set of press ups or run over the walls as they are to pour over a script or run lines.

All this interdisciplinary action should attract a mixed crowd: Furtado hopes that as well as regular theatre-goers, they’ll get locals who’ve never seen Shakespeare before; Peckham school groups and breakdancing crews have already booked tickets. “It’s a way of accessing the story and the language – the hope is we’ll be appealing to people who have different interests. For me, it was really important to tell the story in a way that doesn’t make it seem like it was about ‘other people’: what’s so extraordinary about Shakespeare is he writes people that transcend age and time and space.”

The creative team is also diverse. Beatboxing champion Bellatrix has taught the cast how to make some noise – beatboxing will be used at celebratory moments (the modern equivalent of a “Flourish”, Furtado suggests), and as a mourning chorus, marking the play’s many deaths. Choreographer Temujin Gill – who worked on the Olympics opening ceremony – has cast the Parkour runners and taught the rest of the peak-fitness troupe how to scoot across car bonnets, swing from scaffolding and vault across the car park with swagger and ease.

Watching early rehearsals in the space, it’s clear there’s a lot going on, and it’ll be a challenge to nail it all; whether it’s harder for stage actors to learn to beat-box or for free runners to learn to speak verse is a moot point. The car park – atmospherically rich though it obviously is – also brings logistical challenges: from simply getting enough electric power for the lighting rigs to actors battling to be heard over the frequent rattle of passing trains. They’re feeling the strain, but Furtado suggests the real-world interruptions may become an integral part of this Titus:  “it’s interesting to have a world that keeps going on outside; it’s right there, we can’t ignore it. It’s a reminder of what [the characters] are fighting for.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that as we enter technical rehearsals, more challenges will emerge,” nods Furtado before adding with a grin “but if we weren’t up for a challenge, we wouldn’t choose to do it in a car park!”

‘Titus Andronicus’ is at Bold Tendencies multi-storey car park, Peckham, 31 Aug to 21 Sep;

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