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.