It’s often said that the 1960s didn’t really happen until the 1970s. That was when the alternative ideas, creativity and challenges to the established order really started happening – briefly at least.
So it was that an East End theatre company began by challenging the space between theatre and street, cast and audience. It culminated in one of London theatre’s most vibrant companies and fascinating performance spaces. Yet today the Half Moon on the Mile End Road is a Wetherspoon’s pub, its courtyard space used not for the consumption of Brecht and Chekhov but the ingestion of Chicken Tikka Masala and Shepherd’s Pie … what went wrong?
The Half Moon Theatre Company, which began in 1972 in a rented synagogue in Alie Street, Aldgate, was very much a child of the previous decade. A cheap rehearsal space with living accommodation alongside would make it affordable for the group to put on pretty much any production they chose, and for the performers to exist if not attain riches. And being established right in the heart of the East End, a million metaphorical miles from Shaftesbury Avenue, it would encourage local people to get involved – the sort of people who just didn’t go to the theatre. The name was taken from the nearby Half Moon Passage.
The trio behind the plan were Mike Irving, Maurice Colbourne and Guy Sprung – the first two were unemployed actors (plenty of them in any generation) and the latter artistic director. ‘Build it and they will come’ is an optimistic mantra for any business – and at first they didn’t. A production of Bertolt Brecht’s early masterpiece ‘In the Jungle of Cities’, which wrestles with power, money, status and hatred in 1912 Chicago, might have seemed an unlikely hit, but people came to the 1972 show, and the Half Moon began to get the attention of Fleet Street and the West End.
Michael Billington is today Britain’s longest-serving theatre critic, and the authorised biographer of East End playwright Harold Pinter. But in the early seventies he was new to the reviewer’s chair at The Guardian. He was blown away by an adventurous Half Moon production of Henry IV. Already the Half Moon was thinking about the nature of the theatre space itself – ideas that would come to fruition on the Mile End Road a decade later.
He wrote: “Bill Dudley has ingeniously transformed the auditorium into a medieval loft with a raked wooden platform bisecting the audience and a mini-drawbridge being lowered from a balcony for processional entrances. This means that the actors are rarely more than about fifteen feet away from the audience; and crucial speeches, like Falstaff’s on Honour, can be addressed to individual spectators rather than hurled at a faceless throng.”
For those of us who always sit at the back during live performances, lest we get dragged on stage, it sounds a nightmare, but people loved it. Shakespeare was no longer a precious painting to be viewed behind glass, but something to be lived, experienced, taken part in. The Half Moon had anticipated modern theatre by going right back to the days of The Globe and The Theatre, with performers and audience meeting in the pit. That the synagogue held just 80 people only added to the power and intimacy.
Soon though it was too small. In 1979, the company decamped to a disused Methodist Chapel by Stepney Green (a theme was emerging here). Appropriately, they opened with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The continuing flavour was class and agitprop theatre – you would go to the Half Moon to see Edward Bond, Dario Fo and Eleanor Marx, as well as Shakespeare. It might not be Shakespeare as you knew it though.
A 1980 production of Hamlet had Frances de la Tour in the title role. The actress, best-known to young audiences as Olympe Maxime, headmistress of Beauxbatons Academy, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, is better known to their parents as Miss Jones, target of Rigsby’s unwanted affections in Rising Damp. From the late 1970s, de la Tour was a mainstay of the Half Moon, also appearing in Fo’s Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay. Set amid the radical politics and economic collapse of seventies Milan) it sat perfectly amid the feeling of chaos and collapse that engulfed Britain in the dying days of Callaghan’s Labour government.
“Don’t confuse serious with solemn, though. There’s a lot of comedy and bite in these plays, and the feeling you were in the thick of it with the cast created a real tension,” remembers Jack Torode, an audience member during the seventies. Michael Canty, another fan of the Half Moon, agrees: “People don’t keep going back to serious theatre because it’s good for them … they go because it’s fun. Performances there were fun.”
The Half Moon continued to provide ‘difficult’, political theatre and to pull in the crowds – demonstrating that people are happy to be challenged while they’re being entertained. Popular theatre could be more than just re-runs of classic hits, light musicals, or pop songs strung around a flimsy narrative. By the early eighties, the company had again outgrown its home (it sat 200). Where would the Half Moon move now – perhaps a disused Catholic Church? The plans that emerged were far more ambitious.
The theatre would expand into a derelict site next door, with a new building leading naturally from the rather lovely red brick chapel. Robert Walker was now the artistic director and he had firm ideas about the use of the space.
1983 was an exciting year for the Half Moon Theatre Company. From its earliest days in a derelict synagogue, it had the funding for a purpose-built space that would change the very way theatre was used.
Architect Florian Beigel was brought in to design a theatre with no fixed seating, making for a very flexible auditorium. Walker wanted everyone to come to the Half Moon, from kids to pensioners, bringing their own work, talking about theatre and performance. The Half Moon now had a proper bar and office space for the first time. In 1985, the now theatre, funded by the Arts Council, the ILEA, the GLC and Tower Hamlets Council, reopened with a production of Christopher Bond’s Sweeney Todd.
Beigel firmly places Robert Walker as the driving force behind the new Half Moon. “He was a very inspiring guy. For him it was all about theatre in the street, theatre in the courtyard. We had a marvellous relationship and came up with the idea of a ‘scenic street’.” This ‘street’ would break the remaining barriers, sweeping you straight off the Mile End Road, into the internal courtyard and right back to the where a spy window looked onto the old Jewish cemetery at the rear. As far as possible, Beigel and Walker had dismantled the walls separating the theatre from its surroundings. The popular and political rubbed shoulders – Woyzeck one week, The Wizard of Oz the next.
The Half Moon traditions were intact though. “The design was based on the most personal, engaged forms of theatre from the past – The Globe, Italian Commedia del Arte – actors and audience together,” Beigel notes. In the garden behind was the Young People’s Theatre. The Half Moon was drawing from the past but looking to the future.
They played around with the space. “At one point we had a horse walking in from the street and right through the building,” laughs Beigel. Somebody had to follow behind and clear up the mess of course. A fine East End tradition – a generation before, local people would have been following brewers’ drays, seeking fuel for their roses. It seems a very long time ago, and a very different world now. Within just a few years the dream would be dead.
Florian affects a vagueness when I ask him his age – ‘Oh, 67, 68 … something like that’, (digging further, it emerges that Beigel was born in 1941). That, and the architect’s thick German accent, legacy of his childhood on the shores of Lake Constance, which has survived decades of living and working in London, impart a rather professorial, unworldly charm to his speech.
As a lecturer in architecture at London Metropolitan University, Florian is training the new generation who will shape London. But Beigel is primarily a working architect, always looking forward, energetically pitching for new projects. On the day we speak, he is savouring the disappointment that his company’s pitch for a project on Mile End Waste has not won the commission.
‘It’s a part of London we are always interested in … it’s very important to us,’ he says. With these visions of the future, architects are perhaps not sentimental, nostalgic people. They may always be looking to the past, but for inspiration and to draw a line to the future. Talking to Florian Beigel today, though, there is still palpable sadness and anger at what happened to the Half Moon.
By the mid-eighties financial problems were mounting. Every penny from the Greater London Arts Association grant was being used to service debts from the build. At the same time, as old faces left and new came in, the Half Moon lost its artistic bearings a little. From growing year on year, the company faced a struggle to hold its audience. All could have been overcome, had the company not suffered the body blow of having its grants cut. Not only did the GLA see its grant as being misused, but the Conservative government decreed that theatres had to be self-supporting. The company’s dream of cut-price political theatre for local people was neither financially nor politically palatable to the party of Margaret Thatcher. In 1990, the Half Moon was broke and closed its doors.
The legacy continued. The Half Moon Young People’s Theatre is still going, and has its theatre in Whitehorse Road, Stepney. The Half Moon Photography workshop evolved through Camerawork in Roman Road to be part of the Four Corners film collective. Maurice Colbourne would go on to find fame as Tom Howard in the hit BBC series Howard’s Way during the eighties, before his sudden death in 1989. Michael Irving is still a working stage and screen actor. After the Half Moon, Guy Sprung worked as a theatre director in Berlin and Moscow, before returning to his native Canada. He now lives, fittingly, in the Mile End area of Montreal.
Florian Beigel was back in the East End recently, working on that pitch for Mile End Waste. Each ride past the Half Moon pub was a painful reminder of what was. “There were plans for the Magic Circle to buy it, to use it as a library and a theatre. Lots of local people put in money to keep it going. Instead – a pub! And they’ve cut the space in half. What a waste.”
I stand outside on a Friday, trying to recapture the bustle and energy of those eighties performances. From inside, the lunchtime drinkers, hunched over pints of lager, stare out.