THEATRE REVIEW: AWAKE AND ASLEEP
The Magic, Language, and Society initiative is a new collaboration between The University of Surrey and Treadwell’s Bookshop. In a bid to make certain esoteric aspects of the humanities more accessible to wider audiences, the programme will run events at Treadwell’s, a nucleus of London’s contemporary magical scene. The inaugural production, Awake and Asleep (written by Jessica Burgess and directed by Tom Crowley), was billed as an “immersive historical drama” that “explores how a group of inter-war intellectuals, writers, and ‘Bright Young Things’ are influenced by the occult”.
The first showing took place on an unusually sweltering evening on the 20th of July and was kicked off by Caroline Wise, local historian and co-author of The Secret Lore of London. Wise’s lecture on the history of occult bookshops in London got the time-machine gears rolling and effectively set the stage for Bloomsbury as the 1920s hub of turbulent but gifted literati and thespians.
The play opens in the fictional Arcadia Books with a conversation between Alice (played by Sophie Attwood) and Gloria (Pippa Caddick) who are getting ready for an “initiates-only” party in the basement. Alice is the flapper-like rising member of their esoteric order. She’s vivacious, headstrong, and very fond of alcohol. Like W.B. Yeats and Aleister Crowley, Alice is the archetypal romantic idealist. Gloria, the owner of Arcadia Books, is more reserved. As the wizened patroness of the “forest of books” she’s a kind of Minerva, a foil for Alice’s youthful aura. Gloria is also deeply attracted to Alice and sees that she has untapped potential. Naturally, she disapproves of Alice’s plan to run away to Scotland with her lover Clifford, an up-and-coming journalist, but she stops short of standing in the way of Alice’s dreams.
Soon Alice reveals the darker part of herself: her subconscious is haunted by a sinister wolf apparition. It’s the classic Gothic secret, a seemingly unknowable something that lies somewhere in the depths of her soul. Is she afraid? Yes. But she’s also intrigued. When Gloria leaves Alice alone and momentarily returns to the party, Clifford (Peter Wick) comes bumbling in, gatecrashing the gathering with a haughty smile on his face.
Clifford is a man of the world. He doesn’t believe in the woo and hogwash of occultism. Regardless, he is in love with Alice, and is obsessed with the secret workings of esoteric societies. But Clifford can’t even keep his own secrets under wraps. By mistake or providence, Alice gets her hands on his notebook. She takes a peek and discovers that Clifford is writing a scandalous exposé. His story is tabloid gold, a completely fictional narrative of orgies and ritual nakedness. It’s pure opportunism and Alice won’t have it. She calls off the engagement and Clifford slumps out the door, embarrassed and regretful.
The direct result of the break-up is the unleashing of Alice’s psychic energy. In the “forest” of Arcadia Books, she comes face-to-face with the Guardian on the Threshold, her very own big bad wolf. The spirit is aloof but somehow Alice coaxes it closer. Then comes the moment of triumph: the spirit merges with Alice, cementing their bond. Symbolically, this is the union of conscious will and savage genius. She accepts her wildness, masters it, and becomes “Alice-Unbound”. The new Alice, now a Promethean creator, then proclaims her first magical act to Gloria: “I think I want to write a book!”
As a work of imaginative but historically-inspired performative art, Awake and Asleep was a wonderful start to the Magic, Language, and Society programme. Storytelling and myth-making have always been a kind of bridge between worlds, and the cast and crew did a fantastic job of conjuring the audience into another era. I expect that forthcoming events in the series will be just as fun.