It is 1789, the evening before the storming of the Bastille, and at the start of In Lambeth Catherine and William Blake are stark naked up a tree, enjoying the evening air, while the visionary poet points out the angels that he can see to his beautiful, down to earth and tolerant wife. This is a rather a lovely way to start and also a nice theatrical shorthand which tells us everything we need to know about this loving and unconventional couple within a short space of time. They even come down from their tree still naked to greet their notorious visitor, the “bogey man” revolutionary Tom Paine, who is a wanted man with too many enemies. He is suitably shocked by their flaunting of convention, but during the course of the play it proves to be Tom who has the more radical and socially challenging ideas. As they argue, fuelled by Catherine Blake’s good food and common sense, the two thinkers come to a kind of understanding which illustrates Blake’s idea that “opposition is true friendship”. While Blake has an astonishing creative imagination, able to visualise and speak with angels and take on the most radical visionary ideas, allowing them to flower in his poetry, he is unable to accept Paine’s argument that radical social change is needed for the flawed and very real society around him, whatever the cost. Blake understands that society is unjust and wants to see change, of course, but he needs to be sure of his motives for wanting to change society and be sure that there is no self interest or hidden personal reason behind them before he acts on them. He needs to understand all the possible outcomes of social change and think them through while Paine is a man of action, wanting to take his chances with the present moment and make decisions one step at a time. It is a fascinating duel of words as the two men challenge and provoke each other. Initially their common desire for change in an unjust society hides the fact that they are poles apart, but this is an unavoidable conclusion which they both finally have to accept.
This kind of play is difficult to write and it takes a brave man to try. Putting famous names from the past up there on stage and inventing dialogue for them is fraught with danger. Jack Shepherd’s play, first seen in 1989 avoids all the pitfalls very nicely and proves itself to have stood the test of time. The dialogue is clever and believable, laced through with ideas and quotes from two great men without ever managing to make you feel that you are being given a history lesson. The acting matches the text, it is fast and naturalistic with a lot of force, never overplayed. Jack Shepherd plays Tom Paine with enormous conviction. He doesn’t need to shout his way around the stage for us to believe that he is a man driven by his passion for social justice and dangerous to his enemies. Lisa Bielby is charming as Blake’s wife. She is clearly the anchor whose steadfast practical and emotional support allows her husband to dream his visions, paint and draw, and write his verse. Luke Shaw, as Blake, has just the right light behind his eyes to make you believe in his genius and see the toll it takes on him. He makes the angels and ghosts that he sees live for the audience and we feel his vulnerability and essential goodness. Neil Sheppeck’s direction was invisible, which is always a good thing, and allowed us to focus on the central argument of the play.
A thought provoking and lively piece of theatre, full of ideas and conviction.