Back to the theatre

BACK TO THE NATIONAL THEATRE

THE DORFMAN IS one of the three auditoria that make up the National Theatre complex on London’s South Bank. The Dorfman, which opened in 2014, is a completely redesigned version of The Cottesloe that used to stand in the same place. On our first ever visit to The Dorfman, today, the 6th of October 2021, we noted that it was a great improvement over its predecessor: better seating and sight lines than at the former Cottesloe.

Stage at the Dorfman

The play that we watched, “Rockets and Blue Lights” by Winsome Pinnock (born 1961), was inspired by a painting by JMW Turner. Originally named “Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhon coming on”, it is now named “The Slave Ship”. Painted in 1840, it now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, USA. Close examination of this wonderful painting reveals the wild sea near a sailing ship is full of hands reaching out from the waves, the hands of Africans sinking after being tossed overboard. Turner, a sympathiser of slave trade abolitionists, might have painted this in response to the tragic story of British slave ship “Zong” on which about 130 enslaved Africans were killed in 1781 when drinking water supplies on-board ran low.

The play explores the possible back stories of those tossed overboard from the ship depicted in Turner’s painting. The drama alternates between the present and the dark past when slavery was still flourishing in the Americas. At first a little confusing, it does not take long before the constant changes in period begin to make sense. The scenes set in the present relate to the making of a film about Turner and those set in the past try to recreate the story that led to the disaster painted by Turner. The ideas behind this play are not without great interest but at times I felt that a bit of editing (i.e., abbreviating) would have made the drama punchier. Understandably, the playwright wanted to make the horrors and inhumanities of slavery abundantly clear to the audience, which she did very well. I am glad to have seen this play, but do not rate it amongst the best I have seen during many decades of watching drama on the stages of the National Theatre.

Our visit to the Dorfman was the first to the National Theatre since the day before the first covid 19 ‘lockdown’ commenced in March 2020. On that day before everything closed down for months, we sat for seven hours in the National Theatre’s Littleton auditorium to watch a truly excellent play, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota” by Robert Lepage, the National Theatre at its very best. Even though the play we have just seen at The Dorfman was not nearly as good as the play by Lepage, it was lovely to return to the National Theatre. That said, the South Bank felt eerily underpopulated compared to before the pandemic, probably because of the paucity of tourists from abroad. Walking in the sunshine along what used to be a crowded, joyful recreation area, I wondered whether we will ever experience the ‘normal’ we enjoyed before covid19 changed the world.

Where Londoners once had fun

BEFORE THE COVID19 PANDEMIC gripped the world, many Londoners made outings to pleasure grounds such as Legoland, Thorpe Park, and further afield to Disneyland near Paris. During the late 18th century, Londoners seeking entertainment headed for places such as Vauxhall Gardens, Ranelagh (now, the grounds of Royal Hospital Chelsea, site of the Chelsea Flower Show), and Cuper’s (across the Thames opposite Somerset House). These pleasure gardens began to decline, some before and others during the 19th century. However, in their wake, another such place came into existence in Chelsea, Cremorne Gardens.

Thomas Dawson, 1st Viscount Cremorne (1725-1813), an Irish landowner, possessed a plot of land on the north side of the Thames, just west of Battersea Bridge. There he had a mansion, Chelsea Farm, which was often visited by King George III, his wife Queen Charlotte, and the future George IV. In 1825, the property came into the possession of Granville Penn (1761-1844), a cousin of Cremorne’s widow.  Penn’s claim to fame is that he was involved in the establishment of what is now The Royal Veterinary College in London (www.rvc.ac.uk/about/the-rvc/history). Penn did much to improve the grounds of the estate, but later sold it. The house and grounds were bought in 1831 by Charles Random De Berenger, Baron De Beaufain (www.rbkc.gov.uk/leisure-and-culture/parks/), who created the Cremorne Pleasure Gardens.

The great beauty of the grounds led it to being opened by De Berenger as a public pleasure ground known at first as ‘The Stadium’. De Berenger was:

“… a sportsman and in the grounds opened Cremorne Stadium. Members who paid their two or three guineas could, under the Baron’s instruction, shoot, box, and practise “manly exercises generally” in the grounds.” (https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/pdf/CRA_Historical_Survey.pdf).

Today, there is a Stadium Street located in what would have once been part of Cremorne’s estate.

The Baron died in 1845 and the estate grounds were sold. They were laid out tastefully and the place, opened as a public pleasure ground that attracted large crowds of people seeking pleasure and entertainment, who were willing to pay modest fees for it. The gardens flourished between 1845 and 1877. In 1850, they came under the ownership of Thomas Bartlett Simpson, who also purchased Ashburnham House (an 18th century edifice) on the west side of the estate, which he used to house some of his visitor attractions. The grounds offered visitors many attractions including dancing; meals; secluded areas; firework displays; theatres for farce and vaudeville; ballets; puppet shows; trapeze artists; tight-rope walkers; a maze; and balloon ascents.

In his 1880’s “Old and New London”, Edward Walford describes some of the exploits with balloons, which were not without excitement. In 1839, whilst the gardens were owned by De Berenger, a Mr Hampton equipped with a parachute ascended two miles above the ground with a balloon and then descended to the ground with his parachute.  Some years later, Vincent De Groof ascended from Cremorne Gardens in a contraption, designed to help him fly, suspended from a balloon. After reaching a high altitude, something went wrong and poor De Groof fell to his death.

By the 1870s, the Cremorne Gardens were becoming disreputable, especially becoming notorious for prostitution. After they closed (for financial reasons), the land became used for building houses and other buildings including the Lots Road Power Station.

In about 1846, the artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) moved into a house by the river on what is now Cremorne Road, close to Cremorne Gardens and to the Cremorne Pier. He constructed a kind of gallery on its roof, from which he could sit and observe the changing light on the river. According to a biography by Peter Ackroyd, Turner was unwell whilst he lived there, suffering from dental problems that caused him to lose all of his teeth, and consequent dietary-related illness. He remained in Cremorne Road until the last year of his life and died there.

Today, little remains of Cremorne Gardens except a few street names and a small park close named Cremorne Gardens next to the river. This delightful, small open space has a paved section as well as a lawn. It is a tiny fragment of the original Cremorne Gardens but a fitting memorial to a place that provided entertainment for Londoners over many years. A couple of piers project into the river. These were originally landing stages for visitors arriving at the Gardens by river boat. Another souvenir of the heyday of the Gardens is a pair of wrought iron gates that stand in the present plot, but not in their original position, now built over. Small though it is, with its superb views of the Thames, the present Cremorne Gardens is a pleasant place to visit, within a short distance from the fashionable Kings Road.