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Taking on the Empire: How We Saved the Hackney Empire.

Taking on the Empire: How We Saved the Hackney Empire

Roland Muldoon

Just Press, 2013

15.00 [pounds sterling], pb., 347pp., 96 b/w ill.

ISBN 9781907352065

The title of this rumbustious and rollicking book suggests the two senses of "empire" in which the author, Roland Muldoon, long-time maverick of leftwing political theatre, is interested. Firstly, and most importantly, it is his beloved Hackney Empire, the theatre he and his wife, Claire, and other assorted allies, re-opened and ran from the mid-1980s until 2007. Secondly, "empire" is the pseudonym for the British establishment, both Thatcherite and New Labour, which had to be "taken on" in a different sense. This book is an account of how Muldoon and his comrades adopted one Empire and turned it into a successful popular theatre despite the best efforts of the other. It is an entertaining, and occasionally infuriating, book that proceeds from deep convictions and a lifetime spent attempting to create a political theatre rooted in popular culture.

The Hackney Empire is, as Muldoon frequently reminds the reader, an historic theatre, which opened in 1901 and was designed by Frank Matcham, one of the best known theatre architects of the heyday of music-hall. It survived the rise and fall of the halls and was latterly run by ATV as the first commercial TV studio for live performance, before being sold to the Mecca Group as a Bingo Hall. When Muldoon and fellow members of CAST (Cartoon Archetypal Slogan Theatre) chanced upon the Hackney Empire, it was scheduled for demolition and redevelopment as a car park. The book adopts a broadly chronological approach to the story of how it was rescued, re-opened, closed for lottery-funded redevelopment and then re- re-opened in 2004: it is not a short story, and the book comes in at nearly 350 pages and could have been shorter without losing much of interest or substance.

The early history of the theatre, and of CAST, is covered in the first four chapters, and sets up the narrative effectively. The most interesting part of the book is what follows: where the territory on which future battles would be fought is delineated (it is mostly money and politics, inevitably) and most valuable of all--the account of the shows that Muldoon and his team brought to the theatre. There is no doubt that the Empire's new management had an acute sense of the currency of popular performance in all its variegated forms. Most of all, they managed to attract new, local and often non-theatre going audiences of the kind that Arts Council bureaucrats and generations of theatre practitioners would give their proverbial eye teeth for. The reader has to take some of this on trust, as there are very few audience figures in the book: one suspects the team had other things on their mind than counting heads.

The repertoire was eclectic and audience- and performer-led, especially through the late 1980s and 1990s, the period covered by most of the book (dates are not always easy to find in the wealth of other detail). Muldoon spotted the way that the success of alternative comedy had allowed a renewal and reinvention of variety, which he rechristened New Variety. Alongside this was the promotion of black, popular theatre, especially Jamaican farce, which proved extremely successful with local audiences, as did the annual pantomime. The theatre also forged relationships with the National Theatre and the Almeida Theatre during the 1990s, bringing, for example, Ralph Fiennes's much-lauded Hamlet to the Empire's stage in 1994. Unexpectedly, Muldoon and his team also succeeded in finding an audience--much of it local--for opera. Political theatre, of the kind that is sometimes a pseudonym for popular theatre in the discourses of British theatre history, also had a place. Although resolutely anecdotal and colloquial in its tone, the writing here is full of wit and Muldoon's sharp, politically-informed observations about the oddities and challenges of the position he found himself in. There are also over 90 photographs and illustrations, which work best when they relate directly to what was performed on stage (posters and placards are particularly illuminating).

The book begins to fall apart, however, in its second half, where the focus is less on the repertoire and more on the struggle of the Muldoons to keep their jobs and keep the theatre open in the face of the deviousness and duplicity of their enemies. These included successive members of the Empire's Board of Trustees, Hackney's Labour-run Council and the Arts Council. The difficulty here is that Muldoon is too close to the events he is detailing, too immersed in the emotions they provoked, and unable--on the evidence of the book--to speak clearly about what happened. There is, buried in these sections and sometimes erupting onto the surface, a strong sense of the political failings of New Labour's cultural policy, the culture of "consultants", the worship of business, and the mistakes of the early years of National Lottery funding. The tone is so remorselessly acrimonious, however, that even the attempts to give the devil his due (Muldoon is, I suspect, not a naturally vindictive man) are hard to credit. This reveals a general problem with the book, which occasionally reads like a series of diary entries. Muldoon would have benefitted from a good editor, who would have challenged some of the assertions, clarified and simplified the story and cut out repetition (we are told on at least two occasions, for example, that the 02 building, formerly the Millennium, Dome, was sold to Americans). This might have made the book less personal, but it would have been more useful.

It is best to read this book for its strengths and despite its weaknesses. The Muldoons and the Empire eventually parted company in 2007, although that is perhaps too benign a phrase for the machinations that preceded their departure. At the time of writing (October 2016) the Empire's website suggests much of what they championed still governs the repertoire: in 2016-17 this includes an annual pantomime, a concert by the Danish Chamber Orchestra commemorating the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the Szeged National Theatre's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, the comedian Jimmy Carr and Guilt Trip, a farce by Jamaica's "King of Comedy" Oliver Samuels. The Muldoons may have left the building, but their resolute refusal to obey the rules and keep theatre forms in their "high" and "low" boxes still survives: the Hackney Empire, and we should be very grateful for that.
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Author:Lacey, Stephen
Publication:Theatre Notebook
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2016
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