Authentically site-specific: The Alchemist at #51 Hoxton Hall

Is the only genuine site-specific theatre that which is community engaged?

The Alchemist

As part of the Urbanism season at Hoxton Hall, Firehouse Creative Productions staged a modern re-interpretation of Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist. Some of the characterisation was inane and parts of the plot construction repetitive, but this show had fire in its belly.

‘Urbanism’ is the first of what will be an ongoing series of programmes hosted by Hoxton Select, a panel which consists of and is engaged with both Hoxton and young people.  The Alchemist was devised in and inspired by life in modern Hoxton, and has a relevance to those who know the area and have walked its streets to get to the theatre.

I was impressed by the pace and sheer restlessness of this production. The auditorium has only a limited cabaret seating area, but is much more expansive in terms of its height. This was fully embraced by the company, who made use of at least five different levels and took over the whole of this Victorian music hall. The whole show was very much alive.

Although this production was not without its flaws (there were a few wearing character performances and some frustratingly repetitive plot aspects), it did seem to be very engaged with the space and area of its performance. Perhaps there are better examples of community inspired art (Andrzej Lukowski was unimpressed by its engagement with place), but it does make an interesting and unexpected contribution towards the debate about just what exactly ‘site-specific’ theatre is.

I’ve written about site-specific theatre before – about why we’re drawn to it and about what it really means. In my previous blog I tried to differentiate between ‘site-specific’ theatre and ‘site-specific-esque’ theatre, using dreamthinkspeak‘s Before I Sleep in the Old Co Op Building in Brighton as an example of a ‘truly site-specific’ piece of theatre. On reflection, I’m not sure it was. Although it was performed in and engaged with the old department store it was performed in, it could have been performed in another run-down department store elsewhere (should there have been another large empty period building available). The Alchemist, in this adaptation, really couldn’t have been performed anywhere else.

This is an important aspect to consider when we put our clumsy labels about; we shouldn’t be overly distracted by the physical geographic implications of the word ‘site’. A ‘site’ is a place, and a place is more often than not influenced as much by its people as by its buildings, if not more so. ‘Community art’ is a horrible tag and one that has become somewhat stigmatised, but its place within the Fringe should be celebrated, not shunned.

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