Jack Shepherd’s imagination of a meeting between William Blake and Thomas Paine will be familiar to anyone who has stood at 3am, wine bottle in hand, slurring passionately in defence of Thomistic rights while your partner in the empty bar stresses, as if it was their highest held belief, whatever meta-philosophical pamphlet they most recently chanced upon. But these two are pretty good at it. In Lambeth is an engaging, thought provoking, and short play which centres around one single conversation between three people, the third being Blake’s rather simple but exceedingly well acted wife, Kate.
The production sits delicately between reality and fiction. It opens in the garden of Blake’s London home, just around the corner from our version of Blake’s little Eden at Southwark Playhouse, where the play opens with Mr and Mrs Blake fully naked and Blake talking to angels. The meeting between Blake and Paine is a fictional one, but the mismatched pair may well have crossed paths in the small intellectual circles of 18th century London. What’s really interesting about Shepherd’s play are the tensions he explores in Georgian society, with Paine sheltering in the blissful garden of the poet, while a mob of rioters beat on the door from the outside. This is cleverly accentuated by the progression of the debate between the pair, with Blake entering a forceful defence of the power of ‘revelation over revolution’ while Paine is more practical, pushing for political mobilisation with a rising tone and abrasive manner.
Set in one location and with only three speaking parts, the play relies heavily on the cast. Each are impressive, with the dreamy yet forceful voice of Tom Mothersdale’s Blake, drawing out carefully his distinct ideology in comparison to the international and practical Paine. Christopher Hunter as Paine is just as engaging, playing a worldly man with fewer pretensions than Blake, but an equal passion. Kate Blake is surprisingly demure, although far from peripheral, sitting quietly for much of the play while the two great egos battle it out on the big questions of Revolution. Although the play would no doubt fail the Bechdel test, Melody Grove’s character is the only of the three to stand up to the lynch-mob outside, with Blake’s sweeping ideology and Paine’s grand political plans apparently too important for either to notice her go.
The joy of the play is not so much in the drama, but the hugely engaging performances and sharp observations of the two characters’ philosophies. The stillness of the setting and the building of the discussion allows the audience time to ponder on the debate, with the regular reminder of the unrest of the posse outside creating a building feeling of urgency. As Kate Blake puts it well, it gets rather heated, and that passion is highly believable. Worth your time.
In Lambeth is playing at the Southwark Playhouse in London until 2 August