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Liberty Hall and Free Speech

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Some talk of cuts, others of expansion and continuity. There's an unexpectedly optimistic feeling abroad in our theatre at the moment, nowhere more so than down in Battersea, where BAC is celebrating thirty productive years with champagne and fairy cakes.

Last night, before the opening of The Red Shoes, the joint artistic directors, David Jubb and David Micklem, explained how their public laboratory, where artists hang out with their audience, and inter-react, notably at the experimental "Scratch" evenings, is about to become an organised squat.

The new terms of the lease on the old town hall from Wandsworth Council -- for 125 years, and the first twenty of them rent-free -- allows BAC to accommodate up to twenty-four artists living on the premises for up to four months at a time in six new bedrooms.

There's already a daily footfall of hundreds of people through the place, and not just for shows: for parties, weddings, exams and nursery playgrounds. It's a libertarian labyrinth, still defiantly operating at the edge of whatever is new and adventurous in our theatre, and I don't think there's anywhere quite like it in the country.  

The development of the atmospheric Victorian building is done in constant consultation with artists and architects, so that a discussion about the possibilty of burning a wood fire, for instance, led to the discovery, and usage, of eighteen chimneys in the place.

There's a birthday gala of The Red Shoes on 24 March when audiences are invited to sponsor a pillow, a bed, or indeed a whole bedroom; and that new "wing" -- there are no plans for hospitality suites or conference rooms, so far -- will be christened during the One-on-One festival next month, where you can endure or enjoy solo pampering of mind, body and ego in the practised hands of Ontroerend Goed, Rotozaza and foot-washing Adrian Howells. 

While in celebratory mood I should mention the official handing over of the English PEN presidency in the Tricycle, Kilburn, this Sunday. A quite amazing line-up of actors is reading poetry and prose as Lisa Appignanesi makes way for South African-born novelist and playwright Gillian Slovo who, of course, has a specific attachment to the Tricycle through her documentary drama work, notably on Guantanamo.

English PEN is the leading human rights and literature charity lately associated with campaigning to change the libel laws (supported by Stephen Fry and Jonathan Ross) in favour of the bullied and justly critical, and supporting the Belarus Free Theatre with Tom Stoppard.

The Tricycle line-up includes Janie Dee, Ben Kingsley, Paul Bhattacharjee, Matthew Macfadyen, Bill Paterson, Harriet Walter, Claire Price and Michael Pennington. And they will be reading and performing work by Carol Ann Duffy, A A Milne, Tolstoy, Proust, Philip Roth, Harold Pinter, Raymond Chandler, Salman Rushdie, Anna Akhmatova, David Edgar, John Berger and Willa Cather. 

Sounds like a great gig to me. You could buy a ticket and feel good about yourself before giving into showbiz and buying another one for the following Sunday's Olivier awards at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, where Stephen Sondheim will be honoured for his contribution to London theatre (one year after all the eightieth birthday celebrations) and Barry Manilow -- why, exactly? -- is performing alongside Kerry Ellis.



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