Life on the London Stage, London Met Archives

This morning we were given a special short tour of the Life on the London Stage exhibition at the City of London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell. We’re grateful to the Knowledge Quarter for organising the morning, which gave us a chance to be led through a part of the City of London’s resources that can often be overlooked.

The single floor exhibition uses material from the Archives and some specially donated items (some correspondence with Kenneth Williams) to mark out a history of theatre in London. Highlights included: documents registering the movements of William Shakespeare’s son Edmond and his short-lived son Edward; audio and video educational arts recordings, from hyper-local TV reports to study-readings of Shakespeare plays; photographs of actresses notable for their relationships with the monarchy; and various displays with photographs and potted histories of figures familiar (Burbage, Garrick) and unfamiliar – the likes of Ethel Barrymore, an actor reputed to have rejected a proposal from an admiring Churchill (and some relative of contemporary Hollywood actor-producer Drew) and Ira Aldridge, a black actor famous for taking on Othello in the 19th century (whose life and work was also the subject of the Tricycle Theatre’s Red Velvet in 2014).

This is an interesting exhibition in its own right. It also tiptoes around the subject that we at McCaldin Arts find so absorbing, that of the richesse of the biographical narrative as a way of framing & illuminating both contemporaneous and today’s works of art.

More to the point, the Archive stages exhibitions such as these as showpiece events to draw people to the Archive itself. The building has a hundred kilometres of shelving for its collection, which can be accessed in a light-filled reading room separated from the exhibition simply by a glass wall. It is free to register and access the collection.

It is a strong period for theatrical exhibitions in London at the moment. In addition to Life on the London Stage, the V&A’s Opera: Passion, Power & Politics exhibition works as a strong counterpart to its own Theatre Collection (and Opera Collection). It’s a good time to take stock of the heritage of the artform in the crucible of the capital as the popularity and diversity of theatre in London continues to expand.