I have been back down to my beloved Bankside for a weekend of packing and goodbyes.
After thirteen years in the old Coffee Warehouse at Bear Gardens, the Lions part has moved out and moved on. There are always casualties during any process of gentrification and the building that had been home to the theatre company for so long has been deemed uninhabitable and will be redeveloped. There will be no room for Lions in its future, shiny incarnation.
It’s odd to think that in just over a decade, we have watched the complete transformation of the area. We were there way before The Globe and the Tate Modern. We performed our alchemical George and Dragon in the pouring rain at the Bankside Power Station just before it closed permanently for refurbishment. When the Globe consisted of just a few beams of oak, many actors associated with the Lions part staged a series of Shakespeare excerpts as part of its Rough But Nearly Ready season.
It is ironic that such extraordinary artistic riches have spawned nothing but homogenous architectural and commercial sentinels. The back of the Tate Modern could now be a high street in Croydon, or anywhere else for that matter.
Bear Gardens was ballast to this progress. It was an unreconstructed mess, with exposed brickwork, cracked toilets and a bewildering maze of passages and staircases that could flummox even old-timers. We used to rehearse in the Star Chamber, a glamorous name for a miserable, badly lit space with inadequate heating and an unfinished grey concrete ceiling. At the top of the building was the hub of the Lions part empire, The Horrid Room, so named because it always had a strange atmosphere. The small windows faced a building, the light was poor – but more – the sense of a soft something against the skin that felt slightly damp and unhappy.
At the back of the Horrid Room was a door. When it was unlocked and opened, it revealed the balcony of a small theatre, through which was a large space containing racks and shelves of costumes. This was named, appropriately, Narnia. During productions, it was the norm to hear people shout out, “Where’s so-and-so got to?” “Oh, he’s in Narnia.”
It was fitting. We were already in our own world of magic and fantasy, a world that could be, for a short time, a salve to life’s troubles. So many of those Lions (and their cubs) have passed through the company, working with courage and laughter during the cancers, divorces, family traumas and secret human sorrows, to become part of the warp and weft of the rich fabric of Bankside rogues and vagabonds.
We loved each other, this unique band of talented people. We held a knowledge of each other’s foibles that provoked in equal measure exasperated tension and affectionate shorthand. Sharp words and kind gestures survived together in a cooperative paradox, while we, children all, relished the joy of climbing two flights of dusty stairs to dig out velvet treasures in which to dress up and show off.
And now those treasures have been packed away. We humped boxes of shifts, mummers’ rags, velvet Venetians, medieval hoods and the makings of a white bear down those stairs and into a van. The dismantled maypole will be taken to Kent, the rest will go into storage until the Lions can find a new home.
We should have felt sad. There was poignancy, yes, but with it the sense of excitement that throwing things out and moving on can engender. We talked a lot about stuff while we were working. We all carry so much unnecessary stuff in our lives. I recently had tea with some people from the Lebanon and Iran who had been forced by war or revolution to abandon all that they owned and leave the country. They took with them only intelligence, knowledge and their love for each other. They continued to live and they lived well.
To crown the finality of our departure, we decided to buy supper at Borough Market, and attempted to drink beer on a grassy patch in the sunshine, at which point an aggressive, badly-trained Community Police Officer moved us on. Apparently drinking alcohol in public is now an offence in Southwark. Good Gods, the puritans are winning the war. Soon there will be no more cakes and ale. It is now high time that yellow stockings became standard issue for all law enforcement personnel.
We drank our beer in the Horrid Room. We wept a little.
Those who have spent the night there have heard the workings of the winches as they haul sacks of coffee across the gantry. In a hundred years, perhaps others will hear the faint sounds of a squeezebox, drumming, singing and the stomp of feet up and down the stairs.
The Star Chamber is quiet now. Narnia is empty, save for a few wire coat hangers and dead boxes. In the stripped-out Horrid Room I picked up a feather and put it in my back pocket. Water was thrown over the carpet in ceremonial valediction. Then we closed the front door.
We left little to show for our presence, except for some graffiti and beer bottles. A building can never usurp the love that we feel for flesh and blood, yet its very walls soak up human energy and hold it, emitting a subtle signal to anyone willing to pay attention to its supranatural music.
Listen carefully. Those walls whisper: “We woz ’ere.”