Ascending Ages: Hackney's human history explored via inventive new play inside St. Augustine's Tower
PUBLISHED: 12:23 21 October 2019 | UPDATED: 14:34 21 October 2019
"This is a piece of Hackney's own history that we are giving back to its people," says Dan Dawes, co-founder of the Idle Discourse theatre company.
Dawes is in Lithuania when we speak on a bright Friday morning last week, with his company representing the U.K. at the Theater Cluster Festival. His comments above, however, refer to Idle Discourse's next creative project, which comes to the historic St. Augustine's Tower between October 30 and November 7.
This next play is called Ascending Ages, and it tells the story of ordinary people living in Hackney at different times between 1319 and the present day. Split in to five scenes - each about eight minutes long and written by a different playwright - the narrative focuses on two bell-ringers and their contemporary experiences.
Act one opens on the ground floor in the middle-ages, with audience members and actors climbing the tower's narrow staircase for each of the following four segments, which tell stories of the local community in the industrial revolution, swinging sixties and, finally, on the tower's rooftop in 2019 (weather permitting).
St. Augustine's Tower is open to the public on the last Sunday of every month, and Dawes first got the idea for Ascending Ages after visiting the tower himself.
"I went along and the first thing that struck me was the history of the place," he says. "The idea came to me about all the people that would have been through this building - the notches and the graffiti on the walls - all the stories that have happened in that tower from everyday people for 700 years."
Ascending Ages, he tells me, is about "how the tower connects every one of us throughout history. With each floor you ascend, you go to a different age. The focus is on Hackney - it's a London story, of course - but it's specific to Hackney.
"It's about two bell-ringers who are local residents, about the people that have come before them and might come in the future. I'm fascinated by the idea of layers of time [and how] human beings at their core level have always been the same."
In Joshua Asare, Rory Fairbairn and Rebecca Tubridy, all of the actors taking part are based in the Hackney area. The same is true for three of the five writers, with Dawes himself the author behind a scene set in 1969.
Ascending Ages is an example of the stripped-back, simple level of story-telling that's at the heart of Idle Discourse, a company which Dawes created in partnership with producer Nina Flitman in 2016.
"We try and keep [the focus on] simple storytelling. Sometimes I feel like productions can have elaborate budgets and become a bit overcomplicated, particularly with tech. People forget that the core reason to go to the theatre is to see a story.
"It's interesting coming to festivals like this [the one in Lithuania] because you have to think about performing English work to people who don't speak English as their first language. [It's about] how simple, and how clear can we make this story?"
Ascending Ages will take place at 7pm every night of its nine-day run, with a handful of daytime performances also planned. There will be 15 tickets on sale for each production, and Dawes assures me that there will be a guide at each show to help people navigate the steep climb.
Dawes anticipates "a relaxed evening of simple storytelling, which is also quite elegant." The play will be accompanied by an original soundtrack from Olly Fox, who has Shakespeare's Globe, National Theatre and RSC credits to his name.
"St. Augustine's Tower is a hugely evocative building," summarises Dawes, "and its continued presence in the centre of Hackney reminds us that our history is always around us, even if we don't always look up to notice it."
October 30 - November 7 at St. Augustine's Tower, E8 1HT. Tickets are £14, and can be bought here.