The Palace that Joan Built is exhibited on the mezzanine level at Stratford Underground station until July 2016.
A 60-page, illustrated booklet containing an interview with the artists, song lyrics, musical scores and photographs is available to read here, or download your own copy below.
The Palace that Joan Built by Mel Brimfield and Gwyneth Herbert was commissioned to celebrate the centenary of visionary theatre director Joan Littlewood’s birth on 4 October 2014, an occasion marked across the country by various individuals, groups and organisations under the banner of ‘Fun Palaces’.
Brimfield and Herbert’s starting point was a desire to unpick and animate the life and legacy of Joan Littlewood. The artists examined Joan’s own writings, academic texts and scripts from Theatre Workshop, Littlewood’s company who adopted Theatre Royal Stratford East as their home between 1953 and 1979. They spoke to her colleagues and collaborators and explored the creative and dramatic heritage that influenced her own directorial work.
Of great significance to the project are the unrealised plans for a ‘Fun Palace’, conceived by Littlewood and architect Cedric Price. Handwritten notes, sketches and blueprints in the archive at Theatre Royal Stratford East, express Littlewood and Price’s desire for a space that incubated imagination and experimentation. Their vision was to create a welcoming space, accessible to anyone, with varying levels of interest in the arts and sciences.
Drawing on these rich sources, Brimfield and Herbert have ‘flattened’ Littlewood’s biography into a piece of musical theatre, filmmaking, print and photographic archive blurring fact and fiction into a new narrative of ideas.
At the heart of this commission is a film, with an assorted cast of characters including performance artist Dickie Beau taking the lead role as Joan Littlewood herself. Witty and irreverent, the film responds to Littlewood’s desire to poke fun at authority. Brimfield and Herbert have imbued the film work with a strong conceptual framework. Structurally, the film is influenced by Sergei Eisenstein and his theory of the ‘Montage of Attractions’ – editing images together to increase their impact – and Theatre Workshop’s ‘Living Newspaper’, a form of theatre that presents factual information in dramatic form. Peppered throughout this film are original songs that convey a musical biography of Littlewood and the aspirations and experiences that formed her life.
Throughout the project, Brimfield and Herbert have mirrored Littlewood’s groundbreaking inclusive approach to the arts, working with a diverse selection of community groups, local schools and professional practitioners across various disciplines. As with Littlewood’s work, The Palace that Joan Built deeply engages with community practice whilst never compromising on artistic intent.
On 4 October 2014 the artists launched the project to 58,000 people at Stratford Underground station during a three-hour performance featuring East London Brass and Upbeat Choir, one of London’s busiest Underground stations. With a big nod to the ‘Fun Palace’, Brimfield, Herbert reflect and celebrate Joan Littlewood’s own ambition, taking theatrical performance out of the theatre and bringing it to the people.
The Palace That Joan Built is an over-arching project that draws on the past while offering a contemporary narrative on the life of Joan Littlewood, presenting it within the station that serves Stratford, an area where Littlewood lived and worked for many years.
This was totally amazing. We transformed a dull concourse in to an Artists arena that allowed the station to ‘dance’ in a way never seen before. Seeing the smiles across the gathered customers was a pure joy.
I have just read the other comments and totally agree with everyone especially Beryl Riches. I couldn’t have put it better myself everything she says is true. The whole experience was great and if someone doesn’t make a musical out of it and put it on at The Royal it would be madness. Well done all concerned.
A wonderful experience to join up with Walthamstow Silver Band, a select group from Wanstead Upbeat Choir and the talents of Mel and Gwyn to mark the contribution of Joan Littlewood to Stratford Theatre.
I was bowled over by Gwyneth’s songs, her stunning voice and the great musical accompaniment. As a member of the choir I was privileged to sing in four of the songs but all were wonderful and told us a lot about Joan Littlewood’s life and work with mixtures of humour and sadness – really thoughtful lyrics. All of the very skilled team, Gwyneth, Paul and Mel were wonderfully supportive and encouraging as were the Art on the Underground team – it was a joy to be part of it, and what a great venue + some lovely participation from the audience! After a wet afternoon I’m sure Joan was directing that bit of sunshine that shone on Gwyneth for the very last song. I will definitely value Joan’s work and the theatre even more now.
I was privileged to have the opportunity to be part of the choir for this performance. It was an inspired idea to pay homage to Joan by bringing together Community groups for an rousing performance delivered to anyone who was prepared to stop and listen – exactly as she would have wanted. All of the songs written by Gwyneth were exceptional – she is a very talented composer and performer and could not have been more enthusiastic, kind or patient with us. Similarly, we were very grateful for Paul’s expertise and sense of humour. Mel, Mariam and Polly never stopped smiling and were there to support us throughout. So, thank you Art on the Underground, it was a pleasure!
Wow! Wow! Wow! I went along to see my friend Sandra Reekie and the Upbeat Choir and spent the most enjoyable afternoon that anyone could have. Knocked out by it all. Gwyneth was sensational, and with the choir to add strength, plus the band I felt I was experiencing something very special. It was exciting and memorable. A joy to see the people’s faces as they came off of the trains and stopped to be entertained. Why oh why is that not transferring to the stage. Elements of it smacked of Les Miserable. The sign of having been moved by something is if you are still singing the songs days after, I wake up and go to sleep singing Puppet on a shoestring. I have paid a lot of money and not had the kind of experience I had on Saturday. Fun exciting, exhilarating. It must transfer. Let’s start a petition right now. Congratulations and a well done. Makes you feel good to be alive doesn’t it?.
It was one of those times when you don’t think too much about answering a call to be involved – just do it and see what happens. Well that’s what I did – and thoroughly enjoyed it! I’m still singing the songs. Gwyn & team were great and the crowd seemed to love it. Thank you Tim! That’s Tim Sutton – Upbeat Choir’s Artistic Director.
Pics are good. It was a fun day at the Fun Palace. Was unsure when rehearsing what I’d let myself in for but Gwyneth has such talent and her songs were brilliant. The whole afternoon was an amazing experience (if a little chilly). Rx