“I like this,” I say, peering at a large metal contraption outside the Brunel Museum. “It looks like a borer, or something…”
Helen comes over to stand next to me. “It’s a pump,” she says very confidently.
“Well, someone read the label.” I pause. “Or have you just not told me that you’re secretly an engineer?” One never knows with Helen. She’s an expert on things that I haven’t even heard of.
“So, what is this place?” she asks. She’s clearly not an expert on the Brunel Museum. Nor am I, to be honest. I kinda knew it was a place that existed in the world, but have never been here before or even know what sort of things go on inside.
“Where do you think we need to go?” I ask. There are some double doors open just ahead of us, with seats laid out in rows inside. Was that the theatre? No, the seats were all round the wrong way, facing the doors. Somehow that didn’t seem likely for a dance performance.
“I’ve seen people going in there,” says Helen, indicating another building slightly further down. We follow the path as is slopes down and around a squat tower.
It’s dark in here. Very dark. But I can just make out the silhouette of a table against the gloom.
“That looks like a press table?” says Helen, doubtfully.
It does look like a press table. The type set up on press nights to greet invited guests away from the faff and queues of the box office. But I’ve been to enough makeshift theatres this year to know that this homespun look often extends beyond the PR-game.
I go over and give my surname. The man behind the desk looks at me. I look at him. “S-M-I-L-E-S?” I try. My name is hard. I get that.
“Smile?” he says.
“Yes.” Close enough.
He applies a monocle to his eye and starts flipping through the tickets.
“Maxine?” he says, sounding slightly suspicious. But he hands over the tickets anyway.
But my attention is elsewhere. I’ve spotted something very exciting on the table.
“Yay! Freesheets!” I say, grabbing a couple and handing one to Helen.
“Yay,” says the monocle-guy, managing to sound both deadpan and sarcastic at the same time.
There’re not letting people into the space yet, so Helen and I both traipse back outside. It’s raining.
“He was…” I start.
“Yes,” agrees Helen.
“Frankly, I expected better from a man with a monocle.” A thought occurs: “He was not a fop.”
“Not. He was definitely not a fop.”
We decide to go for a walk.
The original plan had been to find food, but there’s nothing here. Rotherhithe is desolate. Streets and streets full of flats, but not a single cafe open.
“Shall we try the bar?” suggests Helen.
There’s an arrow pointing upwards. We follow it.
“Those stairs are really narrow,” she says, getting out of the way so that I can take a photo.
I’m about to tell her that while I enjoy a stair-photo as much as anyone, I’m not sure I’m going to need an image of some rando-outdoor staircase in my blog, but then I see it. It’s really fucking narrow. Like the stairs to get onto a little boat.
“Are people supposed to go up and down these things when they’re drunk?” I ask as I struggle to fit both myself and my bag through this narrow frame. “Oh! It’s nice up here."
We’re standing right on top of the squat tower now. There isn’t much of a view, but it doesn’t matter. It’s really pretty here. Roses climb a blue picket fence and torches blaze amongst the greenery.
We stroll over to the bar to see what’s on offer.
“Just look down there,” says the barman, pointing towards the lower of two chalkboards.
We lower our gaze.
Wine. Beer. Vodka.
“To be honest, I’m not overly enthused by the sound of any of those,” I say.
“I could have a vodka, but…” Helen lets the rest of the sentence hang in the air.
We turn to leave. “You know on Fridays they have fires up there,” I say. “To melt marshmallows over,” I add quickly before she thinks the people of Rotherhithe are very into arson of a weekend. “That’s what the other chalkboard, the one with the cocktails, was from.”
“So why are we here on a Wednesday?”
“Yeah, well. You know. It’s not my fault. If they have all those people coming for a show on a Wednesday, maybe they should have a mid-week marshmallow meeting too.” I’m feeling a little defensive, because I knew about this, and yet still failed to book for a Friday. But to be fair to me, I’ve already got a theatre planned for Friday, and it’s a big one. “Shall we go look at the river?” I say, changing the subject.
We go to have a look at the river. It’s all beginning to feel a bit Ancient Mariner. Water, water everywhere, but nor any tea going begging. Birds circle the cloud-piercing Shard. There’s even an Albatross Way around the corner. I try and make a pun, but I my brain is sodden with drizzle.
Someone is down by the water, working their way through the grimy pebbles.
“I’d like to try that,” says Helen.
“I would too.” I consider this. “But only for like, five minutes. And then I’d like to have a bath, please.”
“A little mudlarking, then lots of hot water to wash my hands.”
“And not having to get on the tube while dirty.”
“Oh, definitely not. Mudlarking with a flat overlooking the water. That’s the way it should be done.”
We carry on walking. Towards the Mayflower Pub.
“Do you wanna go in?”
“Nah, we’re just killing time.”
We hang around on the pavement outside the pub.
I glance up. Something in an upstairs window has caught my eye. “Oh my god, look at that!”
Three costumes. Lined up on mannequins.
“Look at that cloak!” says Helen.
“Look at that dress!” I say.
“I would have loved that dress when I was-“
“Now,” says Helen. “You would wear that now.”
It’s true. I would wear that now. If it came in black.
“What is this place?”
Turns out, it’s the Rotherhithe Picture Library. We peer in through the windows. Tables are laden with books about embroidery. There’s a quilt covered with a patchwork of signatures.
I want to go there.
“Look at the hand-painted signs!” exclaims Helen. “I love hand-painted signs.”
I can tell.
“We should probably head back now…”
There’s a queue snaking its way down the path from the entrance to the museum. Quite a long queue.
While Helen pops to the loo, I join the end of the queue.
“Do you have your tickets?” someone asks me.
“I do,” I say, showing them to her.
“So, is this the queue to get in or…?”
“I have no idea…”
She goes off to check.
A second later, Helen returns.
“The loos were super weird. I got caught up in a history talk while I was waiting."
“This whole place is strange. I feel very under-prepared. People have flowers. Should we have brought flowers?”
People do have flowers. White roses from the gentlemen in front of me, and some dazzling red ones further up.
“What even is this show?”
We look at the freesheet. The show is Salomé. Helen points at one of the character names. “Jokanaan.”
“Right,” I say, weakly.
The queue is moving. We’re heading inside.
“Should I read the synopsis?” asks Helen. “I usually don’t believe in reading the synopsis, but maybe for this one…”
“Don’t you know the story of Salomé?” I ask, surprised. I thought Helen knew everything.
“Well… sort of.”
“I think you’ll be fine.”
I say this with hope. As I also sort of know the story, and have no intention of reading the synopsis.
We’re inside now. There’s a staircase. The red balustrade glowing through the sooty gloom. We wind our way down to the bottom of the tower.
It’s freezing down here. And dark. With the daylight from the doorway growing fainter and fainter as we make our descent, I begin to feel a kindredship with those witches thrown into blackened hole-like prisons. It’s enough to give anyone the shivers. Or at least it would if it wasn’t for the…
Each one of the chairs, set in a series of concentric circles around the walls, has a bright red blanket folded up and placed on it.
“These are nice. Better than the ones at the Rose,” says Helen, immediately pulling hers up to her chin.
“Yeah, those were blue and a bit… old lady on her way to the hospice. These are way fancier.”
Fancier, but not quite as warm. I tuck mine in around my knees and decide to keep my jacket on.
A woman comes over to tell us to turn our phones off. I’m surprised there’s even any reception down here. It feels like we’re sitting in the bottom of a well. A very large well.
“What is this place?” asks Helen.
“Like a pump room or something?” I suggest.
“Those diagonal lines in the bricks… are they the original staircase?”
I’m beginning to realise that I should probably have done some research before coming here.
“I thought this was a museum,” continues Helen.
“I thought so too. I thought there’d be…”
“Like display cases and things.”
“Yes, things.” There is a distinct lack of things down here. Except for what looks to be a department store’s worth of broken up mannequins cast around the floor. Arms and legs and torsos, piled up and upside down. It all looks very undignified.
A dancer appears. He leans back and rolls his stomach, making full use of his shirtless state. Is that Jokanaan? I can’t tell. I should probably have read the synopsis.
There’s someone else. Another bloke. This one dressed in black and wearing dangly earrings. He looks like he should be some sort of drug lord.
And then… ahhh. There’s Salomé. I see. She spins past us in a clinging moss-coloured dress.
It’s all happening now. Musicians step out from behind their music stands and join the dancers for festival of hedonism within the circle. Masks are removed and handed to audience members. Broken bodies are kicked aside. Sex, death, and power circle each other, never letting their gazes waver for a moment.
It's starting to get very warm in here.
“That was…” Helen pauses. “Really fucking good.”
“Oh my fucking god, yes. That sexy John the Baptist dude…” I can’t bring myself to call him, Jokanaan.
“Oh yeah! I mean… I would.”
“Like when Salomé and Sexy John the Baptist were dancing, and he was totally not into it… I totally was.”
“Yeah, but totally.”
The man sitting in front of us turns around in his seat to look at us.
We both burst into laughter.
“I think having him murdered just to get a snog was a bit much, but like, I get it… you know?” I say, ignoring the man and his judgemental gaze.
Helen nods in agreement.
Which just goes to show, that while Helen may be about to embark on a fancy-as-fuck PhD, knows everything about everything, and could quite possibly be a secret engineer, she’s still just as low brow as the rest of us.
Well, for a while.
“I like how she was both the predator and the victim,” she says, reclaiming the intellectual high ground as we make our way back to the surface.
I flounder, trying to keep up. “It’s a very basic plot,” I say. “I mean… you can tell the whole story in three sentences. But here they’ve made it entirely about the characters. Predator. Victim. Everyone is a bit of both.”
“And the way they used the space! That moment when Salomé is up on the staircase, looking down…”
“And the massive shadows cast against the walls!”
“I thought it would be like that place under the pub. You know, Ellen’s worst nightmare,” she says, referring to a mutual friend who has an absolute horror of intimate theatre.
“Vaulty Towers,” I say, knowing exactly what she means.
“Why can’t dance in small spaces be like that? I know a small space doesn’t always mean that it’s crap, but…”
“That’s the one amazing thing about this marathon. It makes me find all these gems in places I would never usually go.”
“No, I would never have come here if it wasn’t for you suggesting it.”
“No Sexy John the Baptist…” I really need to stop calling him that. “Who is he?”
Helen gets out her freesheet. “Carmine De Amicis,” she reads.
“He’s really good in that role.”
“He’s really good in that role.”
“Something… not quite human. Something, separate. Like he’s from a higher state of existence.”
“Here’s the thing,” I say. “Sometimes not having the money or the space or whatever forces artists to really work, to think about how to tell a story. They can’t waste a penny on props or sets. If that was a big name schmancy ballet choreographer, you just know there would have been a half-hour feasting scene, with a coordinated routine for the dancing harem girls and all that shit.”
“Yes! It all has to come from the body. Here, they didn’t have anything. Nothing. Every little bit of characterisation came directly from the body.”
We lapse into silence, thinking about their bodies.
“It was good.”
“It was so good.”
So, there you have it. Salomé is fucking great. Carmine De Amicis, Harriet Waghorn, and Fabio Dolce are fucking talented dancers. And fucking talented choreographers too, because those fuckers not only performed this fucking piece but also created it. The Brunel Museum is weird as shit. And Helen and I are going straight to hell.