Writer: William Blake
William Blake, painter and poet, engraver and philosopher, self-proclaimed visionary and eccentric, is the subject of Kenneth Jay’s new one-man show premiering at the Jermyn Street Theatre as part of the Footprints Festival. With just two performances, William Blake: Letters from Heaven and Hell is constructed almost entirely from the master’s own writings as the man himself seeks to explain, galvanise and inspire.
From his engravers workshop Blake complains that his customers lack artistic appreciation and cannot understand his need to be creatively independent. From there Blake travels through his own output from the bustling streets of modern London to the beauties of nature, the fearsome tiger and the power of God all in defence of his distinctive but certain world view.
Created and performed by Jay, this 75-minute show explores all of the facets of William Blake using his letters, poems and prose to construct an impression of this complex Georgian polymath. Given a jaunty personality by Jay who inhabits the character throughout, the overriding effect of hearing Blake’s various musings combined in this way is to observe an intensity that would make him a hard man to know.
Blake the madman is the one that emerges here as Jay’s fluid approach skips between topics almost at random, his character given a childlike lightness as he exuberantly cradles a sunflower or expresses delight at the sound of a nightingale before becoming solemn, even imposing, as the mood darkens when monsters and religion cloud his mind.
As a feat of memory this show is impressive, committing so much of Blake’s writing to mind and pulling so many sources into a single show. Jay’s delivery of these texts is always conversational and often very accessible despite some of the knottier debates and discussions that Blake is trying out largely for himself.
For the viewer, the structure is not always clear nor who this Blake is actually addressing – is it a series of correspondents or us directly? – and the show hops seemingly at random between different topics. With no plot or biographical shape, there is little to guide the audience through a dense forest of words. Intending to portray Blake as a ‘spiritual essence’, he is clearly a man out of his time or, at least, experiencing life quite differently to those around him, but the haphazard arrangement of William Blake: Letters from Heaven and Hell doesn’t quite carry the audience on this fantastical journey.
In dramatising his writings however, Jay brings considerable stagecraft that makes this a visually and aurally entertaining experience. From the noisy traffic, Underground and road work sounds of modern London against which Jay reads Blake’s associated verse, to the birdsong, rumbling dangers that threaten to consume man during the Last Judgement and the snarling tiger, the sound design does so much to reinforce the meaning behind Blake’s words and transport the character between different realms.
As Tate Britain’s pre-pandemic exhibition of Blake’s work showed, he was a multifaceted artist earning a living with commissioned engravings while pursuing the painting and poetry that he could not suppress. And while you may not feel you know him any better, Jay’s show gives that same impression of a man unable to contain his thoughts, dreams and beliefs pursuing a certain course to greatness.
Reviewed on 16 July 2021