The V&A theatre archive: A whole new play watching experience
Anyone who's happened upon this blog before will know that a dream came true for me recently when I got to see a recording of Trevor Nunn's Hamlet at the Old Vic from 2004, starring Ben Whishaw at the V&A archive.
I didn't even know of the archives existence until a few weeks ago and it was certainly a different play watching experience to anything I've had before. I've watched professionally shot DVD's and film versions of plays but just to go to the archive and watch something that has been filmed for reference only is something else.
You have to book in advance so your chosen material can be retrieved for you and there are all sorts of instructions like taking two forms of ID, no photographic equipment, food or drink etc and you effectively get black-balled if you are more than 90 minutes late.
The building itself is tucked behind high security fencing around the back of Olympia and looks like it was once a rambling Victorian mental hospital.
Access is through full-height turn-styles which are electronically operated once your name has been verified on the intercom. I kid you not. They must have some valuable stuff in there somewhere.
Reception is access by fire-escape-style external metal steps and once you've signed in and been given a security pass you are escorted to the reading room through a card activated turn style, and two card activated doors down a long, silent corridor. Once at the equally quiet reading room you have to deposit your bag in a locker and only pencils are allowed.
More paperwork to fill in and then you get your 'reading card' which is valid for three years. Think I might frame mine.
All paper work completed you are then led into an adjacent room that is small, oblong and has four or five TV monitors each with its own video, DVD player and headset adapters plus scanning machines and a coin operated photocopier.
And so there I was. Headset on, TV monitor, remote control and a video tape. Two people already in the room watching plays and sometimes frantically scribbling notes.
It smelt like academia, it had a the slightly cold feel of academia and I felt a little bit of a fraud as I was there just to catch a play I longed to see and missed, not doing important thesis or production research.
Not quite the experience of the live performance surrounded by fellow audience members but it was easy to get completely lost in what I was watching pausing only when the very occasional use of the noisy photocopier drowned out the sound on the headset.
I'm purposefully avoiding looking at the website where there is a list of all the plays they have in the archive and I don't even want to start exploring all the other material they must have. It makes me want to go back and study English all over again - how different studying would be with all that resource material at your fingertips. So few of the plays I studied I ever got to see performed.
It's probably a good job it's only open Tuesday to Friday otherwise I might find myself there on a regular basis.
Ben Whishaw's Hamlet - a dream come true
Ben Whishaw's Hamlet - the Hallelujah moment
Photo of old security camera by J Kannenberg on Flickr and used under creative commons license