A synergy of place and performance will enliven any show. I think of Wilton’s Music Hall and Mark Bruce’s Dracula as an example, where the venue became an integral part of the drama. And, with Trinity at the Asylum, there is an even more overt case of venue and show appearing inseparable.
Situated in an oasis of calm in the heart of Peckham, Asylum is a derelict chapel (wrecked by an incendiary bomb in WW2) with a fascinating history as the centrepiece of a group of almshouses, arranged in a gated complex on three sides around a “village green”. Sitting on a bench, drinking lemonade, whilst waiting for the chapel to open, we could easily have been in a fantasy world, watching David Jason’s “Pop” Larkin playing cricket in The Darling Buds of May; as opposed to the reality, beyond the gates, of occupying Del Boy’s SE15 setting for Only Fools and Horses!
Built in 1826, the almshouses provided sanctuary for ‘decayed members of the trade’, as retired licensed victuallers (pub landlords, to you and me) were known, back in the chapel’s heyday, throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Apart from some storage use, the grade-2 listed chapel had largely remained dormant and derelict since 1945; until gaining a new purpose, in 2010, when Jo Dennis and Dido Hallett started to use it for Maverick Projects; an umbrella purpose that covers everything from art exhibitions, photo shoots, theatre, funeral wakes and weddings. Although the chapel was essentially gutted by the bomb, by some miracle, most of the stained glass windows and carved stone monuments survived.
The performance space is still surrounded by these funerary memorials, including an 1827 dedication stone in the shape of an ancient Greek temple, to the memory of Augustus Frederick, the Duke of Sussex and Patron of the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum. Partly because of these relics, the shell exudes a smoky, eerie sense of mystery and adventure. And, the design-led performance in Trinity was absolutely in keeping with the sanctity of this sacred atmosphere; unravelling through interlinked, episodic sequences where costume and colour were crucial to the aesthetic concept; and movement, mostly a supporting act.
Three women moved slowly and deliberately across the concrete floor, eventually walking in a passage through the seated audience, to switch elaborate costumes behind a concealed screen at the rear of the derelict chapel. The work was created and is performed by the same international trio – Guoda Jaruseviciute (Lithuania), Valentina Ceschi (Italy) and Kate Lane (UK). They are co-founders of the performance collective, Brave New Worlds, which is co-located in both England and Lithuania, and claims to create performances that ‘sit on the border between live art, theatre and dance’. This performance certainly lived up to that mission statement and very much in that particular order.
Elaborate costumes, often covering the head and most of the face, made it difficult to identify each performer. Their movement was often punctuated by moments of stillness; positions and postures held as if they had momentarily transformed into artists’ models. Thematically, the work explored visions based on various aesthetics concerned with the female form, often in relation to religious iconography; imagery made especially effective in this setting. They were a trio of nuns, with exaggerated wimples; gaolers from some particularly depraved women’s prison (Prisoner Cell Block X); models in the style of a Jean-Paul Gaultier catwalk; the voluptuous curves of the Venus of Willendorf; and even an approximation of the Virgin Mary in pious pose. These elaborate dressing-up routines were juxtaposed with ambiguous, mysterious projections and lighting (by Darren Johnston) and immersed in Demetrio Castellucci’s sinister, Gothic soundscape.
There were times in the hour-long performance when the sensory overload kicked in and one started to be more conscious of the heat inside the chapel on such a glorious Midsummer’s evening. But, to the creative credit of the Brave New Worlds trio, on each occasion, I was brought startlingly back to the production by a stunning coup de theatre. A woman magically transformed in front of us – through a sleight of costume and lighting – from a virginal, religious icon to a massively pregnant alien being, swathed in blue from head to toe, with a skull-like mask, flowing robes and a huge, distended belly (as if she had swallowed a whole rack of bowling balls). And, then again, in the finale; a performer appears as if already burnt at the stake, pieces of charred material falling from her costume to litter the concrete floor. These were moments of significant visual impact that had a jolting effect on the audience’s consciousness.
Brave New Worlds is not a performance collective that I have previously encountered but on this evidence, their highly visual approach to the mix of conceptual art and theatre is clearly one to keep an eye on. And, Asylum is definitely a place to be experienced, even if it is only to find a village green in the heart of Peckham.