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Housing drama: stories of development, gentrification and conflict

Southwark Playhouse where 'Where Will We Live' is on
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The housing crisis is both dramatic enough for national debate and dramatic enough for the stage, writes Flora Neville

In Ancient Greek theatre, the chorus had two primary roles: to entertain and to voice the community perspective, thereby holding authorities to account. The citizens of Thebes in Sophocles’s Antigone cry ‘too late, too late you see the path of wisdom’ and ‘that great words of haughty men’ bring punishment.

This week, the Lambeth Chorus comes to the Southwark Playhouse in a new verbatim play, Where Will We Live? written by journalist Elisabeth Winkler.  

The chorus comes from and around the Guinness Trust-owned Loughborough estate in Lambeth. With the last of its tenants now being evicted prior to demolition, the estate is one of the many in London facing gentrification. Winkler was asked by Changing Face, a Brixton-based arts collective that produces work about changes in communities, to devise a play based on long interviews with residents and local authorities.

‘We wanted to capture the human stories behind the housing crisis’

‘We wanted to capture the human stories behind urban regeneration, and bring the issues to life, instead of the dry facts or statistics about the housing crisis,’ Winkler wrote in the Guardian. The play is set in Brixton Arches and Lambeth’s social-housing estates, and the seven actors, some of whom live in Lambeth and one of whom has experienced eviction, play 22 roles in this community development project.

The impetus behind the play was, according to Winkler, ‘to record what will be lost and raise awareness of what is happening’. The characters are real people and range from Lambeth’s cabinet member for jobs and growth to those being evicted from their homes and businesses. One of the characters is Lambeth architect Kate Macintosh, who in the play says of Lambeth council’s Labour leadership: ‘They are acting like cannibals’. Macintosh’s late husband, George Finch, designed the Lambeth Towers, among other social developments in the area.

Winkler isn’t the only writer to be crafting theatre on this theme right now.

‘Plays have to have conflict, and development is always about conflict’

Claire Bennie, ex-director of development at Peabody, is also writing a radio play on development. ‘Any play has to have conflict at its heart,’ she says, and ‘development is always about conflict’.

In a standard play, there is an existing situation, then something happens to completely change that situation and the characters are in turn changed. That agent of change, says Bennie, ‘acts like a whirlwind,’ sweeping in, transforming, before disappearing off again.

Development, she says, is ‘too heavy, weighed down and complex to tell in a media frenzy’ of conflicting motives and political agendas, and having a couple of hours to analyse the presenting issues and hear multiple voices in one space, could therefore be a lot punchier.

This weekend, also in south London in the multi-use warehouse Ugly Duck, a theatre company called Black Balloon is hosting an evening to read through the script of a new play called Skyline about property development in London. Artistic director Natalie Songer says the play explores, ‘the housing crisis and gentrification… an issue that affects us all, city dwellers and those outside of urban centres’.

The reading will be preceded by a debate between Leo Pollak, Labour councillor for Southwark and Sian Berry, Green Party candidate for London mayor on Saturday, and on Sunday between chairman of New London Architecture Peter Murray and Alice Perry, Labour councillor for Islington.

Like Bennie, Songer believes that, ‘Theatre is about two ideas fighting for control over a shared space – like development and planning,’ making the stage an appropriate space to address the topic.  

Atlhough they do not fall into a canon of plays on development, it’s worth mentioning that two of the twentieth century’s most celebrated playwrights, Michael Frayn and Václav Havel, have taken housing development as their subject.

It often seems entirely futile to protest while the cranes swing

Frayn’s 1984 play Benefactors is set in the 1960s. The protagonist, David, is an architect who believes his profession is the ‘profession of changing things’. His highfalutin principles are ultimately undermined by his scheme for two 50-storey skyscrapers to replace inner-city slums. Havel’s Redevelopment is an allegory set in a medieval castle in a historic town in Eastern Europe. Under the supervision of an autocratic state organisation and led by an emotionally manic project director, a group of architects labour over a high-rise building scheme that will clear the slums and destroy the ancient town’s character.

Development, gentrification, politics and social anxieties are all tangled up with one another. They are hackneyed, jargon-centric conversations that don’t seem to go anywhere. As such, it often seems entirely futile to say or do anything in protest while the cranes swing ceaselessly, demolishing the communities of today to build a more profitable future. Drama has historically been an effective medium to tell the stories that need telling, and to communicate. Perhaps a return to Ancient Greek theatre is in order.

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