As the Melodramatic Elephant project draws to a close and before it is deposited in Southwark Archives as the last heartbeat of the 147 year old Coronet, this is a fitting time to look back and present some highlights.
We could go back 5 years in time, when this project was being conceived in the mind's eye of Constantine Gras, trying to recapture a lost memory of a horror film seen in his early teens at an ABC Cinema.
Or about a year ago when John Whelan, theatre director of People's Company, got on board and helped shaped the theatrical outcomes of the project.
Or about six months ago when the People's Company of talented actors started their workshops and got their teeth into melodrama and the life of Victorian actress, Marie Henderson.
And not forgetting the community engagement at 4 street festivals in Walworth where children made set-design images and adults shared their memories of the Coronet. Southwark Pensioners also held a reminiscence session at the Coronet.
And then on 8 November 2017, The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle, was staged to warm applause at the Coronet. It was a play that weaved together all the archive information about Marie Henderson and the Coronet with a multimedia display of films, music and drawings. Even the Mayor of Southwark got in on the act and attempted to put out the fire that consumed the theatre building in 1878.
All of these are documented in films, drawings and installation art at the exhibition at the Art Academy Gallery and will be deposited into Southwark Archives from 2018.
Or perhaps we shouldn't stop at this point in time. Maybe we should be bold and project into the future. Imagine a student of the London Cyber Academy, on the site of the former London College of Communication. They have come across a reference to the Melodramatic Elephant and want to discover more about the lost world of art and entertainment that once held sway in this area. They dig out an obsolete DVD or memory stick and manage to wire old school technology into the limbic lobe of their brain. Hopefully, they will have a pleasant high when they experience the Haunted Castle of 2017.
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle - Final Week of the Art Exhibition
155 WALWORTH ROAD, LONDON, SE17 1RS
9 - 20 DECEMBER 2017
MONDAY TO WEDNESDAY 15.00-19.00
Here are some reviews of the play and exhibition:
An absolute privilege to have seen this energetic production and how lovely to re-visit the experience on screen.
The recent show was excellent and very well acted and this exhibition is a worthwhile celebration of that too!
Jeremy Leach, Walworth Society
Wonderful project to bring the space to life. So much I didn't know. Fondly remember going in the mid-2000's to the short-lived community film club. Sad to see the Coronet go. It merits the melodrama!"
What a warm welcome at the exhibition. Was unaware the Coronet Theatre was due to close for the building of flats (homes - hopefully for local people)! Government must not continue to remove glorious charming buildings for the bland.
I came past as I was interested in the building, but found this passionate and thoughtful account of the area. I hope to see more of this in the coming years. Much needed.
Norman A Murray.
Love the story of the actress, very inspiring!
A good exhibition that shows how atmospheric the Coronet is. South London and Southwark needs a community space and theatre like this. It will be missed!
I love that the sense of community and history is captured so eloquently.
Enjoyed watching films in my old library
Excellent and thought-provoking. The exhibition makes more sense after you watch the film programme.
Great drawings. I think you did a great job capturing the diverse information surrounding the Coronet.
My parents met at the Coronet. All the stories I grew up hearing about the cinema from them and my grandparents. Beautiful building. Such a shame.
The creative imagination of all involved in this wonderful project for the Coronet, inspired within me the need to petition and advocate for those without a voice. The work beautifully encapsulates a multilateral web of issues from mental health to the loss of our rich history as regeneration rises up to consume the memories of old.
The exhibition was a beautiful introduction to both the history and continuing story of the Elephant and Castle area. I'm leaving gripped by a desire to see the theatre and look behind the things surrounding my new home here.
This Arts Council England funded project about the life and imminent closure of the Coronet theatre, has resulted in a unique and exciting fusion of art forms and collaboration. Primarily performance and drawing, but now we can highlight the role played by music and digital animation.
The Bedlam Dance was a wonderful scene scripted by theatre director, John Whelan and choreographed by three members of People's Company (Nina Atesh, Rawlene Evelyn and Sonja Doubleday) that is at the heart of the stage play for The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. It was based on archive research into Marie Henderson, the Victorian actress of melodrama, who was reported as having gone made when the Elephant and Castle Theatre burnt down in 1878 and she lost all her costumes. She subsequently ended up in the mental hospital Bedlam, although medical records reveal that she was suffering from the unknown and untreatable effects of syphilis.
The emotional heartbeat of the scene was based on an original composition written by Laurence Lysergide. Here are his exhibition programme notes on how the work was produced.
I knew from the minute I was told about composing a score for this melodramatic project, that I would be stepping out my comfort zone as I usually produce 200 – 400 BPM Hardcore Techno, the music used in the rave scene for the play.
Thankfully, I was supplied with a script with detailed musical notes and many examples of music from the 1800’s. I was kept up to date with video clips from the actors performing to get more ideas. I still had to do a lot of research on instruments used during this period and on melodrama as this was all new to me!
The majority of the pieces I produced were dark, eerie and atmospheric. I did a lot of layering with different instruments and pitches to achieve the sound I wanted. Everything was recorded with Ableton Live on either keyboard or guitar.
It did not take me long to come up with the main theme tune for the play as I felt comfortable after preparations. I recorded a few pieces and Constantine Gras chose the Atmos piece. This 8 minute composition was scored with 22 different instruments but the main tune theme is a mixture of violin and cello. It ended up being used in two sections of the play, the Bedlam dance scene and for Sandra Crisp’s animated movie.
What I enjoyed most about this project was that I had to write everything from scratch. There was no sampling. This really pushed me and I have a lot of material now for other projects. Some of my first DJ sets were at the Coronet and so I feel a strong connection to the venue.
Laurence's score can be heard on Soundcloud.
Another important element of the play was an exquisite digital film made by Sandra Crisp. This was screened at the beginning of Act 2 and captured the preceding "madness" of Marie Henderson. The fly through visuals also projected into the future and illustrated how her ghostly figure would become part of the theatrical structure that was once home to her creativity and performances.
This is a description of Sandra's art practice and her work on the project:
I use appropriated online visuals, stored in a digital archive and reworked over time. Through a process of continual sampling/recycling/layering, new connections evolve between the diverse elements of media images from the internet to smart phones. Today’s constant saturation of images and information via 24/7 news and the continually updating web where one image or blog post or Tweet is rapidly replaced by the next, is a central theme running through my practice.
For "The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle' I used Constantine Gras' drawings, photos of the Coronet interior, archive photos and borrowed online visuals to form a dynamic 3D collage textured onto a 3D rendered architectural model.
To fully appreciate the quality of Laurence and Sandra's work they should be seen in the context of the wider project at The Art Academy Gallery from 9-20 December 2017:
155 Walworth Road, London, SE17 1RS
Gallery opening hours:
SATURDAY AND SUNDAY 12.00-17.00
MONDAY TO FRIDAY 15.00-19.00
People's Company member, Aubrey Ayoade (photo, seated left), reflects on his screenplay for the short film, Marie Henderson's Ghost. This was screened as part of a play staged at the Coronet theatre on 8 November. It will also be shown at The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle art exhibition from 9-20 December at The Art Academy Gallery, 155 Walworth Road, SW17 1RS.
“Show don’t tell!” This is the Screenwriter’s mantra. How did this mantra come about? Well, I honestly don’t know except to say that every Film School and Screenwriting course that I ever attended applied this most sacred of tenets.
Having decided that any Silent Film narrative, by its very own design, had to be ‘on-the-nose’ in order to convey the story without ambiguity and to enable the unspoken word to be captured in the pacing and movement of its characters, I set about writing “The Ghost of Marie Henderson”. Enter obstacle No.1. “How do you create a silent short within a thematic and character arc that has been established outside of the film, in a different medium (a play), that you’re trying to devise?” The first probing question, indeed decision, was to understand whether this film was to be considered an insert or excerpt of a larger work.
And so, here I am, making a less than educated guess about moving picture’s first departure from the classical stage and how our Marie Henderson (the protagonist of The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle) might have responded to such a change with a view to me eventually capturing her character in a skittish, 2-3 minute Silent Movie short script. I can only imagine that it must have been a real eye-opener for the rumbustious Theatre-Owner, Producer, Director and Actor working at the birth of an era that might have rendered her business a thing of the past since this moving picture medium implicitly and explicitly foreshadowed a new age in storytelling.
Yet she would have known that moving pictures had a technological limitation; this was the absence of sound and hence, the conveyance of the audible spoken word. In the spoken word, Marie Henderson could, quite literally, find a voice; solace and power since the stage lent itself forgivingly to speech. She was a shrewd woman by all accounts and I imagine that she would have seen this as a deficiency in this new medium and perhaps would have looked to exploit it. To this end, I knew that the silent short had to demonstrate the ‘push and pull’ of opposites, not necessarily ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’. Hence, metaphors and motifs that would express ‘old values’ versus ‘new values’, ‘Tradition’ versus ‘New Age’, ‘Man’ versus ‘Woman’, ‘Stage’ versus ‘Screen’ would, in turn, create tension so creating conflict which in turn would incite action. Conversely, I imagine Marie Henderson being both upset and insulted by the attention that moving pictures would have achieved; this would not be hubris but frustration that she could not have exploited the commercial opportunity enjoyed by later proprietors of the Coronet.
It was this idea that led me to believe that Marie Henderson’s character arc should have considered a detour or departure from the play’s character arc to explore her darker side which was hinted upon in the play text, for example, her excessive drinking and wanton affairs. Within the silent short I would have offered her a malevolent overture softened by the ridiculous, slapstick, buffoonery of her supporting cast.
Through no fault of their own, Silent Movie productions had to be physical (or so I imagine); dramatic, even melodramatic (it’s a mode of entertainment after all!) since the early moving picture did not lend itself to the subtleties of mood, innuendo, subtext, nuance and characterisation. Hence, the actor had to embody, and so enlighten, the narrative with vigour and gusto by movement and exaggerated displays of emotion. Certainly, the physicality of the actor had to convey thematic truths of the story being spun to their audience as if by spoken word. The supporting cast within the Silent Short would, therefore, be ostensibly made to demonstrate the ‘tour de force’ that Marie Henderson was in opposing their collective actions since no one man was her equal even at their best whilst the level of physicality demonstrated in the action sequences were unbecoming of a woman of that era and stature.
So a segway in my thought brings me to an observation made by the Writer, Director and occasional Auteur/Actor Quentin Tarantino of “Reservoir Dogs”, “Jackie Brown” and “Django Unchained” fame. He postulates that “Moving Pictures” were not created as an evolution of Stage but, indeed, as the antithesis to the Stage/Play acting movement. He suggests that (Victorian) Theatre had become largely the preserve of the wealthy; the well-educated and the gentry who would openly discriminate against the working classes by making Theatre an exclusive retreat to be enjoyed by the select few. Perhaps this departure from ‘Theatre for all’ fostered the wave of working-class Vaudevillians who often parodied their “Thespian” colleagues (the real, serious actors) with crude, vulgar and suitably ‘dumbed-down’ acts that were intentionally cheap, accessible, low-brow yet entertaining. This, I’d suggest, was the proverbial ‘two finger salute’ to the gentry and as such, created the divide or adjunct from Classical Theatre to the Moving Pictures revolution which had, suggests Tarantino, the implicit mandate to be affordable entertainment for the lower classes. Keeping Marie Henderson’s character distant, even suggestively aloof, by making her a ghost in the Silent Short does bring into question whether she would have fully embraced the Vaudevillian movement and whether, indeed, as the play suggests that she was just one of the “common people”.
Our Marie Henderson was seemingly neither Highbrow or Lowbrow, or so I suspect. She seemed to be an Entrepreneur; a Chameleon of sorts, Highbrow in private and yet unashamedly worldly, even brazen, in public where her paying working class audience and suitors lay. What did she really yearn for professionally? To be respected by her male peers, perhaps. What did she yearn for emotionally? I can only assume from John Whelan’s script for “The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle” that she wanted to be adored by her audience and her male suitors.
So here lay my inevitable Silent Movie challenge. The character arc of Marie Henderson (so established in the play, namely ‘The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle’) is portrayed as a tortured heroine sickened with Syphilis. She is dignified, pseudo-gentrified, an assured Theatre owner with a mission to keep the Theatre that she loves.
My mind switches again. Perhaps Marie Henderson was the Mary Pickford of the Stage. Mary Pickford was one of the most influential Silent Movie stars of the early 20th Century. From the 1910s to 1920s she, Douglas Fairbanks Snr. and Charlie Chaplin dominated silent film to the extent that they and a few others set-up their own Production house and Film Studios, the aptly named “United Artists”. Even romance graced our screens in the silent era with the face of the great “Rudolph Valentino.
The portability and affordability of moving pictures and their mass appeal within Europe and the US meant that it was only a matter of time before sound technology would transform this medium to the so said “Talkies’. Whilst Stage endured the breakout of the Silent movie era, it’s my belief that the “Talkies” heralded the slow demise of the well-honed Vaudevillian stage act that was often one dimensional and/or did not have a speaking component. Some Vaudevillians, such as Laurel and Hardy, made the successful transition into the Talking era merging their physical comedy with playful dialogue. Charlie Chaplin, a contemporary and friend of Stan Laurel (who both applied their early trade down at Camberwell Film Studios) finds himself both in the play text and in the silent short since he is not only South London’s greatest artistic export (saying that Van Gogh lived about 20 minutes walk away from Chaplin’s house so you might dispute my claim) but he is, perhaps, the most notable baton bearer of the Silent Film era. Interestingly, Chaplin did make a few “Talkies” that were truly excellent and in the final shot it would have been nice to see the “Young Charlie Chaplin” watch himself in a “Talkie”.
Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. A combination of words that for many is just the title of a play, but for me is a couple of months of my life. This play has been the main protagonist of most of my days during this past autumn. Some days were more melodramatic than others, but everyday was spent doing what I love: Art.
I was involved in this project from the very onset. It was ambitious, diverse and maybe even a bit crazy: everything that a young artist could wish for. We started working on melodrama at the People’s Company sessions on Tuesdays. It was fascinating to see the creativity of the whole group being ignited by Marie Handerson and the era of Melodrama.
The play was great, full of details and insight on the history of the Coronet. Everyone was really excited to start working on it. And so rehearsal started. In my role as a stage manager/assistant director I had to organize the rehearsal schedule, a very challenging task when you have to work with a cast of 17 actors, many of them playing multiple characters, all of them having a life outside the production. Making sure that rehearsals ran smoothly, and that everyone was as happy as possible was a challenge that I hope I have successfully overcome.
Then I was asked to direct the horror short movie, Left Unseen, that Euan Vincent was writing for the show. And I was incredibly honoured and thrilled to be given the opportunity to use my experience on set to direct a short movie. I sat down with Constantine Gras, our DoP, to sketch the storyboard for the movie, and then we walked around an empty Coronet to decide shots and angles. We shot the movie in two half days and at two locations.
The first day we were at the Coronet. Time was tight and we had to get lots of shots done in just few hours. We had to have a clear mind and know exactly what we wanted to achieve and how. What we needed was pop-corn! A lot of it to keep us going throughout the filming. I also offered some to the Vaccines, a rock band who was doing a photoshoot at the Coronet on the same day.
The second day of filming was shorter, and we had some time. We could experiment and I had the chance to work with the actors, getting a great performance out of them. When I saw the editing with the narration done by Euan and Constantine my jaw dropped. The result was better than I could ever imagine. We nailed the humor of the hammer horror trailers, and kept a bit of the horror mood. Exactly the goal we had in mind. I couldn’t have been happier.
This play has given me an incredible opportunity to develop my skills as a theatre and film maker. And has allowed me to be part of a great creative process that led to the making of a unique piece of Art. One where theatre, film, painting, music and costumes, worked together to tell the story of a woman, and a building, that have entertained the community for nearly 150 years.
This is a trailer for a trailer of a horror film that was never made in the 1970's.
Starring Charlotte Nicod as the tormented drama student!
The Full trailer can be experienced at The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle
An exhibition of drawings, films and installation art
From 9-20 December 2017
The Art Academy Gallery
155 Walworth Road, SE17 1RS
These are authentic 1970's horror trailers!
I was part of a small team that worked on a 1970’s spoof film trailer that was to be shown within a section of the play that remembered the Coronet’s past days as an ABC cinema. When I was first introduced to the mini project, the idea was to create a Hammer Horror trailer. My first attempted outline for a script therefore involved Marie Henderson and some classic characters from the Hammer Horror studio, namely reboots of Dracula and Frankenstein.
We had a brainstorm session with the team working on the Horror trailer and another team producing a short piece around Charlie Chaplin. It was great fun to watch and research the styles and themes from these 70s horror trailers; especially since they feel so heavy handed when compared to today’s horror films. I was able to get a sense of a time when much societal innocence still remained but was being worn away by the makers of these horrors. The styles of these trailers also left lots of room for send-up and pastiche, such as cheesy titles and credits warning about how scary the contents were!
I learnt a lot also from Aubrey Ayoade, the writer of the Charlie Chaplin short film, on how to weave themes from the existing play into the short film and set off to try to do the same. My initial idea was to tie in themes of the regeneration of the shopping centre, which used an earlier scene from the play - however, it was decided that these themes would foreshadow too much the ending of the play so I set off to find another angle.
After another brainstorming session, this time with Constantine Gras, who was facilitating these short films, we decided to bring in elements of a society going wrong which we thought brought in some common fears that people had from the 70s. We also had the idea of working in references to pop psychology as Constantine introduced me to the works of RD Laing, a famous Scottish psychiatrist at the time. This lead to the first draft of my final script, a short trailer about a university student (a drama student in the final cut) who, leaving her family behind to start a new life in a big city, becomes haunted at the ABC cinema and then gets sucked into a strange world of mistrust at the hands of an over-zealous mental health establishment.
There was still one serious problem: the haunting was carried out by Marie Henderson (the real life Victorian actress who was the inspiration for this project) and we couldn’t have Marie Henderson as a negative force within the trailer! What followed were late night phone calls with Constantine to discuss possible solutions, including many attempts at total re-thinks! For me it was exciting and frustrating in equal measure. There was also something delicious about writing a script for a trailer about a film that never existed which gave insights into film narrative
Later that week the problem of fitting Marie Henderson in still loomed over us and I was asked to work through the script with our actors. I felt nervous and ill-at-ease leading the session but the team came up with some brilliant ideas and we were able to “get it on it’s feet” as John Whelan, our theatre director would say. The problem of working Marie Henderson into the script remained throughout the process: partly because our great actress, Shelagh Farren, had limited availability to make it to the Coronet on the one day we had to film - such are the struggles of juggling budget filmmaking around busy lives!
My next involvement came after the film had been directed by Rachele Fregonese and the bulk of the editing had been completed by Constantine. In a fun and inspired session, Constantine and I were able to whip the voice over narration into shape. We still had a lot of creative freedom with the narration and decided to add some depth with references to Greek mythology with Eros and Thanatos and tried out our most outlandish and scary narrator voices. If you are at all scared or find it funny, then we hopefully hit the marks of sending up those 1970s horror exploitation trailers! We had our horror trailer, “Left Unseen”!
Watching the trailer within the play on performance night, I was pleased with how it fit into the context of the play and served as a homage to the Coronet as a fleapit cinema in the 1970s. The audience’s warm applause was testament to all our endeavours!
I thoroughly enjoyed acting in the Melodramatic Elephant in which I played two roles.
My first role was a Victorian actor playing George, a character from a Melodramatic play called "Lady Audley's Secret." The audience would see George in a scene with the great Marie Henderson as they rehearsed it in the Coronet Theatre back in the 19th century. Initially, the idea of acting in a play within a play was daunting, but I managed to strip it down to a situation where I was simply playing myself rehearsing for a scene. I read "Lady Audley's Secret" and understood George's motives and how his experiences fed his volatile passion and rage.
Our multi-talented director, John Whelan, helped us express the Melodramatic acting style mainly through our faces and ensured we controlled our volume, projecting our voices only at appropriate times during the scene. I found this melodramatic scene not only representative of Marie's mental conflict and emotional struggle, but also a prime example of Brechtian Theatre enabling audiences to think about class ranks, loss, infidelity, relationships and social issues. It was a pleasure to act alongside the unique Marie Henderson (played by the superbly talented Shelagh) and I'm proud we managed to pull off one of the more intense scenes in the play.
Another aspect of the play I will also treasure was portraying Charlie Chaplin. I think the expression "big shoes to fill" springs to mind and indeed his boots were massive considering how short he was. Having done some research into the timeless icon, watching Chaplin's early short films, reading his biography, listening to his interviews online, copying his smile, his walk and his mannerisms. I built up my own interpretation of the great man behind the Little Tramp. For me, his mischievous behaviour and love for life were two key traits I needed to portray.
In the silent comedy written by talented Aubrey Ayoade and filmed by the brilliant Constantine Gras, my Chaplin was a lazy worker, but a cheerful soul nonetheless. Even after being scared silly by Marie's ghost, the final scene shows Chaplin watching a film contently with his small dog and a portrait of Marie next to him, tipping his hat out of respect to her. I felt like I needed to convey his kind heart even in the face of adversity, which was synonymous with the Little Tramp taking on the corrupt system against all odds!
The other notable Charlie Chaplin scene on stage showed how he met Michael Caine (played by the tremendously gifted Michael Tuffnell) at the Elephant and Castle in the early 1970s. Since I would now be playing Chaplin in his 80s, I decided to make him sound and walk much older than he actually looked. I utilised some Method acting to materialise my own experience of loss, matching Chaplin's sad realisation that his childhood neighbourhood was transformed and remodelled into "monstrous blocks." There were also socioeconomic and politically-charged discussions with the charismatic Caine, prompting encouraging reactions from the audience to highlight the power of Epic Theatre. I imagined Chaplin at that ripe, old age as an onion with many layers: first, as the young orphan from East Street who lost his parents too early (his father to alcoholism and his mother to the mental asylum), then as the ambitious artistic pioneer who took on America and inspired the world; and finally as the isolated elder clutching onto memories of his distant past ("They don't make proper movies like they used to, Michael."). The scene ends bittersweetly with Chaplin remembering his old Elephant and Castle theatre (where I imagined him drifting back emotionally to that 19th century world seeing his mother perform on stage) before snapping back to reality and inviting Caine for a drink in a nearby pub coincidentally named "The Charlie Chaplin."
To conclude, this unique experience of playing the Little Tramp has taught me that in an ever-changing world, no matter how downtrodden life gets us, the human spirit can elevate us in our search for beauty.
Excerpts of the stage play and short film, Marie Henderson's Ghost will be screened as part of The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle art exhibition.
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle - Art Exhibition
9-20 December at The Art Academy Gallery
Former Newington Library
155 Walworth Road, London SE17 1RS.
Saturday and Sunday 12.00-17.00
Monday to Friday 15.00-19.00
"Well, I suppose I was a bit bemused when I was told about the role, as she was so integral to the story and then downright scared when I saw the script! I felt responsible; responsible to People's Company, to the other actors to do a good job with them, to Constantine who had done so much research and to the lady herself. I was desperate not to let anyone down, living or dead. Thank goodness I didn't realise that members of her family would be present until the last minute, or they could have been added to my worry list, and I couldn't bring myself to think about the audience at all!
It is no exaggeration to say that I have lived this part for months - just trying to learn the lines took forever, never mind positions - and I have spent some time, generally when drifting off to sleep, wondering how Marie would have handled this. Undoubtedly, with much greater ease, as she was trained for it and it was her career and she probably could learn and perform different parts in a week, if they did rep in those days, which I suspect they did. How I wished for some of her talent in that.
Would I have liked her? I bet she was interesting and a handful to boot! A working mother, wife, actress, manager - drinker and philanderess, both generally indications of unhappiness, often without people realising, leading a busy (maybe worrisome) life.
Would she have liked me? Would she have put up with my amateur efforts or would she have been "oh dearing", bawled me out or sacked me. Would she have been amused. Would she have been affronted. Lots of questions.
One thing I do know. She would have appreciated the full house on the night and I suspect that she would have been in the pub afterwards, possibly very much the grand dame.
At times, I wondered if I would be able to do this (despaired even), and just put my faith in John Whelan, the theatre director knowing what he's doing in directing me. I was amazed to find that from the day of the technical rehearsal, when we got into the Coronet, how calm I felt. I became quite philosophical; I knew there was nothing more that I could do. I even stopped worrying about forgetting lines. I was totally serene, with no nerves at all on the day of the performance. I like to think that she helped me, but that's romantic nonsense. I think that she probably would have put it down to hard graft, or, maybe, she would expect anyone portraying her to do a good job - naturally!
As for me, well it was a privilege to play this part, like nothing I have ever done before or ever will again. Thank you Marie Henderson."
Shelagh Farren performed with the People's Company of Southwark in stage play of The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. This was the final play and community event staged at the Coronet on 8 November 2017. The building will be closing down after 147 years of providing entertainment and art to the Elephant and Castle area. Extracts from the play will be shown as part of a programme of short films connecting melodrama with silent movies and the horror genre. In addition, there will be an art installation, drawings and archival photographs.
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle - Art Exhibition
9-20 December at The Art Academy Gallery
Former Newington Library
155 Walworth Road, London SE17 1RS.
Saturday and Sunday 12.00-17.00
Monday to Friday 15.00-19.00
This is an Arts Council England funded project supported by Southwark Playhouse and The Coronet. The exhibition involved the support of The Art Academy and CoolTan Arts.
I would like to thank everyone involved with the show. I had a great night and thought the cast and the play were outstanding.
Councillor Charlie Smith, Mayor of Southwark
I just wanted to say how brilliant last night’s performance was. It was so poignant, and well-put together and felt like you really captured the audience’s sentiment about the space and the developments in the area.
Elizabeth Morrow, Communications & Volunteer Officer, CoolTan Arts
Thanks for the moving show and memorable evening, you are a dedicated bunch of people who are doing a lot for the community!
Thank you so much for the brilliant play last night - it really was so cool, visual and diverse.
Lucy Wright, great-great granddaughter of Victorian actress, Marie Henderson
It's been an empowering and innovative process for director, artists, cast and crew of The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. We all shared ideas, images and emotions that came together in the creation of a significant work of art. The project was researched and developed over a period of years, but it was that final stage of intensive work, supported by an Arts Council England grant, that took us to another level. The success of our project was based on a deep understanding of Victorian melodrama and its conventions.
Working with archive text and drawings, John Whelan and Constantine Gras produced a play that was acted by the People's Company of Southwark Playhouse. It had its premiere on Wednesday 8 November. Clocking in at an ambitious one hour forty minutes, the play illuminates the history of the Coronet through the ghostly eyes of Marie Henderson, the Victorian actress of melodrama, who ran the theatre from 1875-1880. The play was performed at the Coronet and will be the last free community event for the venue which is earmarked for closure and demolition.
The actress, Shelagh Farren gave a wonderful performance as the central character, vividly evoking Marie Henderson's powerful stage presence and her decline into "madness". This was precipitated by a double tragedy: fire razing the theatre to the ground with the actress losing all her theatrical costumes; and the unknown and untreatable effects of syphilis. Shelagh was supported by a strong cast of amateur and professional actors and actresses.
As mentioned, the play evoked the high tradition of melodrama. This was the staple diet of entertainment throughout the 19th century. Lady Audley's Secret was a best selling novel turned into a play during this period. It was our play within the play, including a "reduced Shakespeare" version, with stylised tableaux poses from the actors that elicited laughs and a raptutuous around of applause from the audience.
The sensation scene in the Melodramatic Elephant was the burning down of the theatre in 1878 and this was performed in the round with actors running in from all sides of the seated audience; it was great to see the Mayor of Southwark, Cllr Charlie Smith, enter into the spirit of the proceedings and when handed a fire bucket, he promptly stood up and threw the imaginary water onto the flames. Priceless!
A hypnotic choreographed sequence followed showing Marie in Beldam and was set to a newly commissioned electronic score by Laurence-Eliot (aka DJ Lysergide who has a connection with the Coronet, having played his first live gigs here in 2010). The digital artist, Sandra Crisp, produced an animated short film showing the inter-related architectonic forces of building and actress. This kicked off Act 2 of the play.
A succession of narrators were guiding us through the story of Marie and the building. A rousing Run, Rabbit, Run got the audience onto their feet in good sing-a-long fashion. Later sections of the play showed Marie as a ghost in her theatre as it was being converted into a cinema. This were accompanied by two striking short film homages to silent cinema and 1970s Hammer horror based on original screenplays by new members of People's Company, Aubrey Ayoade and Euan Vincent.
Contemporary issues of regeneration and social change were given a unique historical twist. In a memorable scene based on a true life incident, Michael Caine bumped into Charlie Chaplin outside the ABC cinema in the early 1970s. In the play we see them talking about the building of the Heygate Estate (which has just recently been demolished to make way for new housing) and Britain joining the Common Market set against the volatile rise of right wing groups. In a parallel scene, set in the present day, we see ravers at the last night of the Coronet questioning why the Coronet is being demolished to make way for more flats that nobody can really afford to live in.
The final image of the play is of a wrecking ball destroying the various manifestations of the building as theatre, cinema and music venue. The narrators put the ghost of Marie Henderson to sleep for the last time. This is a poignant and fitting end to the wonderful 147 year history of the Coronet. At the end of the play, Shelagh Farren gave a speech and talked about the hundred plus years of entertainment this building has given to the local area. She invited the audience to then raise the roof off with a tumultuous round of applause.
Given the emotion of the occasion, we were also graced by having two of Marie Henderson's descendants, Sam Henderson and Lucy Wright. They came onto the stage to share the limelight. They had recently been reunited with their long forgotten and once famous Victorian family member as a result of this art project. Sam Porter, the current manager of the Coronet, was in reflective mood as she thanked the audience for attending and hoped a new building would one day replace the Coronet. The final words were left to the Mayor of Southwark, Cllr Charlie Smith. He talked about how his father must have visited the theatre and how meldorama still existed in today's soap operas.
But as the curtain falls, let us rightfully pay tribute to the cast of the People's Company for their fine ensemble acting which brought to life the fascinating story of the Coronet and the melodramatic actress who will now forever be associated with it. Learn more about the cast, crew and collaborative artists here. The Company's thrilling theatrical exploits were documented on film. This will be a fitting legacy as future generations will have the means to reconnect with the cultural glories of their past.
The Melodramatic Elephant isn't quite over!
We have a two week art exhibition exploring all the themes of the play and project.
This is from 9-20 December at The Art Academy Gallery, 155 Walworth Road, London SE17 1RS.
The exhibition will include the following:
A projected film programme (50 minutes in duration) will include:
It should be a fascinating and visually diverse exhibition showcasing all aspects of The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle. We look forward to seeing you!
This week's blog features two of the People's Company bright stars, Rachele Fregonese and Erina Jamil Nordin. They talk about the upcoming play, The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle, that will be staged at the Coronet on the 8 November 2017. Rachele is working as assistant director / stage manager and Erina as an actress.
So it begins!
We have been workshopping ideas and scenes from the Marie Henderson story. Finally rehearsals have begun. One thing is certain: there is no space for boredom.
After a brief catch up on what will happen next and how we will be moving forward, we started rehearsing two scenes from the newly-written play. At the same time. We’ve split the room in two and off we went. One group was shaping the WWII scene with John Whelan. Another group was with me, putting the “fire scene” up on its feet.
With my group I started with a reading of the scene, in order to bring everybody up to speed. After a read-through I started directing the actors and staging the scene, trying to break the fourth wall. My aim was to give the audience an immersive experience of what it must have felt like to be on the street while the Elephant and Castle theatre was burning.
The actors were following my instruction with no hesitation. They were trusting my instructions, and bringing the scene to life beautifully. Once the major blocking was done, I asked the actors to come back to the text. To read the scene again. And I asked them some questions that, hopefully, helped them connect with what is happening in the scene and the characters they are portraying. I asked them: why are you walking through the streets? Where do you come from? What happened before the scene starts? Where are you going? What is your relationship with the characters you are meeting, or with what you are seeing in front of your eyes? Playing a chorus-like character is a challenging task, that often leads to just reciting lines without adding life to it. That is what I wanted to avoid with my questions.
After this read through I suggested an improv exercise where I asked the actors to start the scene, and interact with each other. But no fire would happen this time. They would do what they were meant to do if the fire had not interrupted them. Immediately a community atmosphere was created, and they started discovering a little bit more about their characters. Next, I asked them to repeat the scene again. This time their activities were interrupted by a Fire alarm (my voice shouting: Fire!). Their reaction was truthful and everyone could tell that the event, the fire, was suddenly more personal and easier to imagine for everybody.
We then presented the scenes to the other group. It was a pleasure to see how quickly everyone had picked up on directions and suggestions, bringing both scenes to life. This is what makes this group so special, in my opinion: the ability to play with each other, to trust each other, to work as a team and to have fun. All qualities that are incredibly important on stage, and that will allow for a great show to take place.
And this is just the beginning of a Journey that will bring us, as a company, to tell the history of the Coronet to the Elephant and Castle community.
Erina Jamil Nordin:
Melodrama and Syphilis! Not two words that usually go together, but at People's Company anything is possible and we make it look good.
Reading through the first draft of 'Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle' was the aim of this session, and it truly was a testament of how melodramatic we could be. Which for the record is a lot!
There were syphilitic hallucinations, fire, intrigue and a bit of history thrown in for good measure.
There is much to be said for reading scripts out loud. As a company we read through the whole script which really gave a good sense of how the piece will look and feel to the audience. Also it's a great way to play around with how characters will sound.
In my opinion this is what People's Company is all about. Being able to try out new ideas on performance and character is central to what People's Company do, and it is done in an encouraging and safe space.
As always feed back and discussion is encouraged and it was brilliant for everyone to be able to input their suggestions and ideas. We are a collective and I feel this reflects in the work we do and the fun we have.
So as this piece evolves I'm really looking forward to what it will be. And if you'd like to see the finished product and see just how entertaining a melodramatic elephant and a haunted castle can be, then join us on the 8th of November.
Pasley Park in Kennington boasts animal and royal pedigree. Once upon a time, roughly two decades from the 1830's, it was the site of the Royal Zoological Gardens with tigers, apes, bears, pygmy elephants and the first publicly shown giraffes in Britain. It even numbered Queen Victoria among its visitors! So it was a fitting location for the Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle, our community stall promoting our upcoming play (8th Nov) and art exhibition (11-23 Nov) about the history of the Coronet.
It was good to see familiar faces passing by. We last met Emine at the opening of Elephant Park and she told us she came to England in 1967 and promptly made a drawing that included a flag of her motherland. As I had her previous drawing to hand she added in some more touches to her art work in-between buying raffle tickets at the adjacent stall. Once again there was rain in the festive air, but Emine's sun was able to banish away those dark clouds. However, I don't think she was so lucky at the raffle.
Two of the children taking part in the art session were Antonio and Mia. Antonio is 6 years old and started to draw some exquisite musical instruments for an orchestra that might be playing in our scale model theatre. We had a piano, drum, guitar and a tuba. A tuba? Well this was actually sketched by his dad, Steven, a talented tuba player who once performed in many youth jazz orchestras. Mia is a shade younger and so took a more abstract approach to art, drawing a charming face and several mysterious objects. It was nice to hear Mia's mum. Rebecca, explain to her daughter the assorted film stars that we had on display, including two local boys from the Elephant and Castle, Charlie Chaplin and Michael Caine.
While Antonio was making his sketch, another of our old friends from previous events, Augustine Nyemah was setting up his trio of African drummers who proceeded to beat a pattern of sound across the park that kept the rain clouds away while also entertaining the crowds.
During the afternoon, it was a great pleasure to meet several residents of the area and to hear their experiences of the former ABC cinema that was housed at the Coronet.
Pamele Petrucci was born in the 1950s and recalled going to Saturday morning cinema for the children at the ABC Elephant and Castle. We discovered that her husband's Italian grandmother who had a cafe in East Street (where the plaque for Chaplin is located) used to supply the cinema with ice-cream. She also listed the Godfather as one of her favourite films and described how its portrayal of Italian family dynamics and father figures chimed with her own life story.
Wendy Watson was born in the 1930s and recalled going to the cinema twice a week and adoring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. That must be Singing in the Rain! It Thankfully, we only had the one drizzle and heavy downpour, all afternoon!
Graham De Kennengton attended the ABC cinema in the latter phase of its existence when it was a bit of a flea-pit! He recounted how Michael Jackson was booked to rehearse at the Coronet for his scheduled This Is It concerts in 2009-10. But he withdrew shortly afterwards. Graham has a photo of his name appearing on the billboard outside the venue. Was this true? I would love to see that photograph and discover more about this story.
This reminds me of how Charlie Chaplin is rumoured to have performed at the Elephant and Castle Theatre before it was converted into the ABC Cinema and the Coronet. I think this unlikely. Chaplin never mentions it, neither does his numerous biographers. But we can definitely report that in the early 1970's, Michael Caine bumped into Chaplin around the Elephant and Castle as they were both fond of revising their old stomping grounds, dressed incognito but, one imagines, with a Rolls close at hand. I wonder if any of these facts or fictions will weave their way into our melodramatic play and art display?
Reflecting the views of artists, actors, residents
and participants in
The Melodramatic Elephant in the Haunted Castle.
An art project about the Coronet from 1872-2017.
Past present future
Music and animation
Euan Vincent on Horror
Tiberius Chis on Chaplin
Final Curtain Call
Directing and acting
Jacko at the Coronet?
Ale and steak pies
This Is Where I Came In
Pollock's Toy Museum
Adventure with the Mayor
Reach for the stars
Ghost of Marie Henderson
Shop till the zombie drops
Faith, Hope and Charity
Singing and sketching
History and legacy
Dark Side of Metropolis
Walworth Street Festival
Interview with Sam Porter
Blood and Thunder
Culture and Capital