6th August 2015
The completion of Bristol’s Wapping Wharf, a £42 million investment of apartments, offices, shops, restaurants and hotels, will be the final step in the mass regeneration of the city’s iconic floating harbour. While the community-focused project will usher in a whole new era for the harbourside area, it is a relief to hear that the development is also mindful of its rich history; within the modern shimmer of its new constructions, the complex will retain and restore several key listed buildings and the old gaol gate in order to enhance the City Docks Conservation area.
While such redevelopments will be a natural and necessary feature in the evolution of modern cities, there is an intrinsic value in preserving the structures of the past and, thus, it’s positive news to hear of this planned co-existence. As well as the retaining of its shapes and structures, an understanding of the human stories and social history of a particularly area is an often overlooked but equally important part of its preservation – this is where ‘A Thousand Seasons Past’ comes in as, set against the scenic backdrop of Bristol’s famous harbour, we hear stories of the site’s often dark and gloomy past.
Presented by Bristol Old Vic Young Company and Travelling Light Youth Theatre, and taking place inside a specially built outside auditorium, the 45 minute performance focuses on three dark stories from the city’s past. With the play’s sixteen-strong cast of child actors largely adorned in grey, austere garb, the device of a ghost ship is utilised as its crew of characters who once lived and died around the dock area return “every hundred years, for a thousand seasons, for a million lifetimes” to tell their stories.
To a live soundtrack of subtly spooky keyboard and cello, the cast utilise choreographed motion, excellently acted scenes and singing to evoke the dark tales of history. Going back to 1821, we learn the story of seventeen year old John Horwood who becomes besotted with his long term friend Eliza. A hopeless infatuation then results in a jealous Horwood setting in motion a series of events that leads to her death and his becoming the first person to be hanged at Bristol New Gaol. We hear chilling narration of the half weeping, half cheering audience in a public spectacle so popular that some fell into the water during the crush.
With the ghostly ship returning to shore, we then hear the story of the Queen Square riots of 1831. With descriptions of a city in unrest and (with jarring contemporary echoes) an emotive speech about the growing economic disparity between rich and poor, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Brereton initially rejects demands for blood as the city becomes ravaged by protestors after the House of Lords dismisses calls for Bristol to be greater represented in parliament. With his back to the wall, Brereton calls on the armed Dragoon guards who violently supress the rioters and a subsequent conflagration results in several dead and wounded. The idealistic Colonel is left disgraced and vies that he’ll “never dream again” before committing suicide and taking his own voyage on the ghostly vessel.
Finally, the cast spin the story of Sarah Harriet Thomas, a servant daughter of a poor couple from Horfield whose life is made a misery under the tyranny of her consistently threatening and bossy mistress Mrs Jefferies. Reduced to sadness and escapist desires to be a princess, Thomas dresses up in her wealthy mistress’ clothing and jewellery; however, she is one day caught by Mrs Jefferies who revokes her week’s wages and threatens her with sacking. This results in Thomas angrily attacking and killing her boss and the last public execution at Bristol’s New Gaol in 1849.
In its short and accessible way, ‘A Thousand Seasons Past’ has taught us three significant lessons from Bristol’s past; steered by a charming and capable young cast, such performances are an easy and effective way to learn and engage with a city’s history. It’s something to mull over before and far beyond the shiny new complex of Wapping Wharf is completed.