A girl in a green dress gazes out of a window. A woman in a long, trailing white gown plays the piano, a life drawing class commences, a bomb has fallen during the Blitz, and dancers dance. Women wearing 1960s shift dresses walk sedately and silently down the stairs. Doors open, revealing rooms inside of rooms, resulting in a shift in time and space.
These are just a few of the living vignettes that one will encounter, albeit briefly, when visiting Geraldine Pilgrim’s Toynbee, a site-specific, meandering promenade tour of Toynbee Hall and Studios, created as part of the Spitalfields Music Winter Festival 2013.
Pilgrim has created an immersive installation looking at the past and present of the building. Her work touches on many historical, political and cultural events in the East End, including the strike of matchmakers in Bow, the Profumo affair (including a fleeting glimpse of Keeler herself, astride the infamous Arne Jacobson chair), and the Blitz, which is manifested as a comfortable sitting room with the ceiling caved in and a beckoning air raid warden. Rooms shift and change, and there is a definite sense of time flickering as you move from the modern (contemporary dancers) to the past and back. All of the glimpses and encounters are fleeting, and there is no interaction with the characters, only silent observation. One starts to feel like a strange, ghostly observer, out of time and space.
Perhaps the most interesting and disconcerting element is the ability of rooms to unfold, revealing new dioramas and scenarios. A walk into the theatre reveals another theatre within, with a performance of what appears to be Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado, the audience frozen in mid-applause.
Although there is a small “museum” at the beginning, containing photographs and documents from the remaining Toynbee Archives (most of the Toynbee library and archives were destroyed during the Blitz), the history of the building and its rooms is largely left to the viewer to determine, often drawn from abstract hints given in the quick glimpses of characters present in the building. It results in a haunting and fragmented picture of the many lives lived in and around Toynbee. Definitely one for those willing to explore.
Geraldine Pilgrim’s Toynbee continues at Toynbee Hall and Studios (28 Commercial Street) until Sunday December 15. Tickets are timed, and must be booked in advance here. Tickets: £12, Concessions available. Comfortable footwear is recommended.
Londonist saw this performance courtesy of a complimentary ticket.