This is a beautifully crafted play. ’If I Can’ explores the lives of some of the 19th century’s most controversial artists and social reformers (Janey Burden, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Edward and Georgiana Burne Jones, and Lizzie Siddal) through poetry, movement and drama. From a waiting room at the rear of the house, you are given headphones and an mp3 player and invited through the front door, where the play begins.
It’s rare to find a production that engages so fully with a place, a time, and a circle of people. Few buildings impress upon you the personality of their owners as strongly as the Red House (they seem to have made their mark on everything). Palimpsest productions capitalise on this- the actors are uncannily well cast to look like their counterparts, dress in Pre-Raphaelite costume, and in the opening minutes of the play adopt poses that mirror paintings from the period.
Katherine Tozer and John Chambers audio play brings out the experience of the characters as thinking, feeling individuals, as well as creators and muses. Like an epic, it spans five years of their lives, and does so fluidly and episodically. The casts sense of timing is impeccable- while they cannot hear the poem, it’s almost as if they move to its rhythm. Excerpts from the group’s political writings are shown in sharp relief to what they do in the house. Is this hypocrisy, or are they trying to live up to high ideals, and failing? And how possible was it to realise a liberated and equal sexual politics in Victorian Britain?
A welcome surprise was the lucid and sensitive exploration of the lives of the women who lived in Red House. It’s too easy to think of the people of the Red House as ‘William Morris and his circle’. This is a credit to Tozer as a writer and to the whole cast, but worth special mention is Tegen Hitchens, who plays Lizzie Siddal with huge range and depth of feeling.
‘If I Can’ is challenging on two fronts. It is immersive, and it is historical. The combination leads to an experience that is dramatic and spectral. However, it does mean you’ll need to physically move around the house and make some hard choices about who to follow. You don’t have to know much about the characters to appreciate the play, but it’s worth taking some time to check out the Red House website and look up some of their work. As can happen with sight specific theatre, some audience members did seem to get a bit lost- if this happens, my best tip is to focus on what’s in front of you. Whatever it is, it’s likely to by visually stunning.
If you’re curious about art and social history but are turned off by galleries, this is a great opportunity to see the history of a place and a movement brought to life. It’s well worth the trip. Performances run on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from December 2 to 18. For tickets vist: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/events/c0374d77-ee64-4abf-b157-600345e2b6fb/pages/details
Reporter: David Brown
Address: National Trust: Red House Ln, London DA6 8JF
Phone: 020 8304 9878