New Hackney opera Clocks 1888: The Greener draws on Victorian East End multiculturalism

Coster and Greener

Coster and Greener - Credit: Archant

Clocks 1888: The Greener is a new opera that draws on musical theatre, music hall and Asian traditions to tell a story about multi-cultural East London in the Victorian era.

Keisha Atwell (the greener)
London première Produced by Brolly productions Clocks 1888: the greener.

Keisha Atwell (the greener) London première Produced by Brolly productions Clocks 1888: the greener. Wed 20- Fri 22 April 7.30pm Tickets £20.00 to £10.00 Running Time 2 hours. Directed by Dominic Hingorani, Composed by Martin Ward. Hackney Empire 291 Mare Street London E81JEJ Box Office 0208 985 2424 Overground to Hackney Central, Buses 30, 38, 48, 55, 106, 236, 242, 253, 254, 276, 277 - Credit: Archant

Performance company Brolly plundered the British Museum archive and Hackney Museum collections to find inspiration for a story about a brilliant mixed race migrant girl who maintains the towering clock that runs the East End.

Featuring a stunning digital animated backdrop it comes to the Hackney Empire on April 20-22.

Bridget Galton asked its Hackney-based designer and Brolly’s co-director Rachana Jadhav about the show.

What has been your approach as designer and how has the subject matter affected your ideas?

My approach is quite a different process to designing for other companies.

The reason I started Brolly with Dominic Hingorani was to create our own process where design, text and live performance is fully integrated from the beginning.

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With my design eye and Dominic’s writer’s perspective we develop the characters and narrative together creating a storyboard to work off of and build the medium around that.

Clocks 1888: The Greener became an Opera mainly to create the epic scale of the world of the factory clock.

The aesthetic of the piece came from a series of illustrations I made during the process.

I have worked closely with a digital engineer for my drawings to be translated into animated sequences…a mixture of one-stop animated charcoal drawings, ink and photomontage.

We use animation where necessary to lift the story.

Brolly has dug into both the British Museum and Hackney Museum archives to find out about East End Immigration...

Most of our projects start when one of us has an idea and then we research together.

I had been looking at the varied public clocks in London most of which have been erected in memory of an event/ person so already have stories connected to them. I had the idea that each clock has a fictitious caretaker or ‘clocketeer’ who takes on the characteristics of their particular clock’s story.

‘Clocks 1888: The Greener’ was inspired by a clock tower in Stepney Green called ‘Education and Benevolence’ so the characters we developed became about the workhouses of the East End.

The ‘greener’ is a Victorian slang word for immigrant.

Hackney Museum has a wonderful exhibition of East End local stories from this time of immigration, labour markets and technological innovation.

One subject we came across was the story of the ‘Ayahs’.

These Indian nannies were brought over by the British to look after their children on the ships coming back to England. Many Ayahs were left on the docksides of the East End and forced to live in workhouses in Dalston and Hackney.

The British Museum was a great resource for understanding how clocks work.

The curators were extremely helpful though I think they thought we were a little crazy. Trying to create a logic based on reality but heightening everything to the point of fantasy was a task.

We held a symposium event in the clocks gallery to show how the arts can open up access to archive and will be hosting an event for ‘Opera Audiences of the Future’ for children at Hackney Museum where the singers will perform in character amongst the exhibitions.

Is it more challenging to work on a new opera than an established one?

This is our first opera, the first of three based around clocks and time.

Artistically it is challenging to bring all these elements together, but that is what makes it fun! The main thing is to convey the truth behind the characters.

The different musical traditions help this dramatically and allow us to be quite free with convention.

The difficulty with new opera is how it is marketed to audiences.

In general new material is always harder to sell. But hopefully the subject matter and the exciting way we are bringing together the diversity of material and characters will excite our audiences.

The cast is multi-cultural, that isn’t the norm for many operas...

It is really important that a narrative telling the story of a diverse society is diverse in cast.

Audiences need to have a connection with these rich characters to reflect issues that are as relevant now as they were in 1888.

Diversity for us is about working with a rich palette, part of this is having diverse characters and therefore cast.

1888 is the year of the ripper murders – does that play a part in the story?

Victorian London is a fabulously dark period of our history where the divide between the rich and the poor could be seen in the architecture and local stories.

The murders are a recognisable part of the environment of this time but there was also workers strikes, labour markets, immigration which have resonance for our society today.

There’s a resourceful female lead in the piece which is nice to see...

Again it is important to have strong layered and complex characters.

The young 15-year-old girl from Hackney has grown up in the clock and though uneducated is a scientist and mathematician living in the conventions that male Victorian society dictated.

We see her grow as she is faced with outside influences. The focus is on making her own choices and not having others decide her life for her. A particularly relevant teenage issue.

As a Hackney resident, are you glad this piece is being performed at the Empire?

Hackney has been my home away from home.

I have lived here for over 15 years now and seen it change and morph and grow and evolve and still manage to retain its charm. The main reason for this is it harnesses diversity.

The diversity of people, food, arts, languages, cultures, social groups is not only accepted but is accessed openly to feed the curious and to allow everyone a multitude of platforms to share their stories.

I hope the opera feeds the curious and reflects the richness of the East End where it is set.