WHEN William Shakespeare wrote that “all the world’s a stage”, we can be fairly certain the Bascule Chambers below Tower Bridge wouldn’t be exactly what he had in mind.
But these two caverns, designed to contain the counterweights of the bridge when it’s raised, will once again be reinvented as subterranean amphitheatres this month for a brand new site-specific installation from the video design students at Guildhall School of Music & Drama.
Blackout paints a picture of London during and in the immediate aftermath of the Blitz, drawing inspiration from the photography of Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs, the two City of London Police officers who rushed out to capture the destruction following German raids.
It will be the technical theatre department’s second installation for the chamber following the success of 2017’s Terra Incognita – Here Be Dragons, but video lecturer Dan Shorten, who has led on both projects, says the space is certainly no less awe-inspiring this time around.
“From the moment I walked into the chamber there was such an adrenaline rush,” he says.
“It has its own atmosphere… and it’s not like a regular theatre; audiences walk in with the expectation that something incredibly special is about to happen.
In Terra Incognita this something special was in the form of students’ creative response to the space, this time they are attempting to bring an external narrative into the space, which presents a new set of challenges – mostly competing with the sheer magnitude of the space itself.
Given the material, it must have been tempting to go ‘big’ with a Dunkirk-style spectacle, but Dan said the decision was made early on to avoid the action movie route.
Instead they have used the photographs to identify nuances of everyday life amidst total destruction, telling the story through one of the officers and real interviews with survivors.
“There’s an honesty we’re trying to preserve here,” Dan says.
“When you look at this collection, two things stand out: the enormous scale of the damage, but also these little pepperings of human beings going about their daily lives,” Dan says.
“For the students, this idea of war is completely foreign, so it’s not about trying to make you feel as though you’re in the moment, it’s more about casting your mind back to consider how different things were in what is a relatively short period of time.”
And then, of course, there are the more practical difficulties associated with staging a show in a “damp, cold, sticky, wet, dirty” underground chamber, with a narrow spiral staircase as your only access point, but these too, have been taken in stride.
“You just get on with it as with any space,” Dan says. “I think any designer is always a little excited by problems – it’s about being creative when you’re confronted with a challenge.”
Blackout is on in the Tower Bridge Bascule Chamber from 23 to 25 March at various times. Visit gsmd.ac.uk for tickets.