“Without contraries is no progression,” asserts William Blake in his infamous book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This hypothesis is put to the test by Jack Shepherd’s play In Lambeth, currently being performed at the Southwark Playhouse, which explores a situation not short of dramatic potential: a fleeting encounter between pragmatic revolutionary Thomas Paine and mystic poet William Blake. Over the course of a moonlit evening somewhere near the end of the 18th century, “pamphleteer and prophet” heatedly debate their opposing paths towards humanity’s moral enlightenment. The argument, mediated sympathetically by Blake’s loving wife, proves intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfying; for whether the clash of these two contrary natures achieves any progression remains dubious.
Polite warnings of nudity on the theatre door are quickly realised as the play opens on a naked Mr and Mrs Blake, perched in an ethereally lit tree, casually conversing with angels. Immediately Blake’s (Tom Mothersdale) childish insecurity becomes clear; overlooked by an anti-Republican mob, he tetchily insists he poses a threat “spiritually“, if not physically so, and gripes, “I have subversive ideas.” “You’re a poet,” reminds his wife, “Poets don’t count.”
Enter Thomas Paine (Christopher Hunter), whose well-known revolutionary politics have made him count enough to need sanctuary from a pursuing gang out for his blood. The self-assured and smooth-talking Paine seems to rile Blake with everything from his smart coat and fondness for brandy to his dogmatically rational mindset. As night and alcohol wear on, the debate of ‘truth’ versus ‘action’ causes personal jealousy as well as ideological difference to vie with an underlying respect for the other’s ardour and essentially democratic spirit. In a rare moment of fury Paine accuses Blake, “Contemplation. Mysticism. Can’t you see? It’s drawing you away from the world ever deeper into yourself.” Blake pauses, and provokingly replies, “How beautiful it is tonight.”
Both Mothersdale and Hunter have moments of excellence: Mothersdale is particularly gripping when overcome by erratic hysteria, such as when sputtering and giggling out the names ‘Madame La-dee-dah’ and ‘Monsieur Footle-pot’. His introspective monologues are elegantly phrased, and outweigh in profundity recitations of Blake’s actual poetry, which are clichéd in choice and occasionally seem forced. Hunter’s best moments come when light irony masks great moral strength. Telling the story of his desperate flight from a French mob, and relating his inability to explain he was on their side, Paine calmly concludes, whilst buttoning his jacket, that “There’s a moral there somewhere: always learn the language of the country that you’re living in… and never run away.”
Melody Grove provides the show’s best performance as Mrs Blake, whose pained love for her husband and spirited playfulness is convincing and poignant. Although excluded from the grander walks of life by her gender and illiteracy, her character is saved from narcissism and her acting from prioritizing thematic progression. Grove’s vivacious storytelling is consistently compelling, and her bold confrontation with the mob while Paine and Blake bicker upstages the revolutionaries. Returning with a spark in her eye, she declares, “They don’t scare me… roughs like that – they’re all piss and wind!”
Overall, however, the audience is left unsure as to what In Lambeth is trying to prove. Is this a tragedy, in which two men’s outwardly different approaches prevent them from working together towards a shared goal? Or is Shepherd optimistically reminding us it takes all sorts to make a world? Despite this confusion, In Lambeth is an informative, engaging, and imaginative work. Indeed, perhaps Shepherd intended to leave us puzzling over Blake’s ambiguous and ironically delivered proverb, “opposition is true friendship.”