In the Heart of the British Museum
In the Heart of the British Museum was commissioned by Max Stafford-Clark
to be performed at the 1971 Edinburgh Festival by his Traverse Workshop
Company. This small company of young actors included dancers, singers
and musician/composers and the script took full advantage of their talents.
The text is quite simple, even naive in style, but the structure is complex,
perhaps more like music than conventional drama.
The description of the shield made by Vulcan for Mars in Scene 4 is actually
a description of the whole play's structure and the idea of transformation
or metamorphosis is central to it. Innovation and experimentalism in the
arts were widespread at the time it was written. This was a very innovative
play then and perhaps, thirty years later, it still is, though it also
retains a strong flavour of its period.
Jeremy Kingston in
John Spurling's arresting play In the Heart of the British Museum,
presented by the Traverse Theatre Workshop, contains three (at least)
story-lines that proceed in parallel but link with one another at many
points.... The production and performances bring about two emotions rare
in the theatre: amazement and a wild surmise.
Further press reaction to the Traverse Workshop Company's performance, first
at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, then a few months later at London's
Cordelia Oliver, The Guardian
Take as your basic theme that all through history the artist (power
through ideas and imagination) has been anathema to the politician (power
through action and force) and therefore to be suppressed at all costs.
Present it in triplicate to stress its perennial relevance (in episodes
covering Ovid, Quetzalcoatl, and Chairman Mao). Interweave the three strands
and in so doing reveal other eternal themes (that black can seem white
and white black, depending on where you stand; that what is life and death
to one age will inevitably be sterilised into later ages' 'culture' and
deposited in cultural storehouses like the British Museum).
Find the right company to bring the result to life and you might make
something as lively and entertaining as In the Heart of the British Museum.
At least you might, if you are John Spurling, for this is the new vehicle
he has written for the Traverse Workshop Company's brand of theatrical
Irving Wardle, The Times
"As in MacRune's Guevara, Mr Spurling is acknowledging that we live
in a world full of contradictions and mysteries; and his work is an attempt
to bring the sense of myth and history to shed some light on them... You
are left with a network of fascinating cross-references; an intricately
dissonant chord that reverberates like the atmospheric arpeggios that
accompany the production. They do not lead to any single statement, but
they hang in the air leaving you with memories of an ecstatic mating dance
between the gods, or of a dead museum keeper being cast into the air as
a handful of ashes."
Harold Hobson, The
"... both its technical and emotional interest lies in Mr Spurling's
daring backing of two coolly told parallel stories of enforced exile (Ovid
under Augustus and a Chinese intellectual under Mao Tse-tung) with the
blaring music and bloodthirsty rites of Aztec Mexico... It is like an
angry sun blazing down on sheets of ice."