The bad news is that you’ve missed The Warp for now. The good news is that it exists. What is it? A church, a cult, a madhouse, a pilgrimage, a cafe with poetry and jazz, a palace of misfits, savants, hermits, flagellants, wizards, witches, and impostors! Yeah… at least all of that.
It’s also the legendary 24-hour play written by the lyric poet Neil Oram and directed by the visionary man of theatre Ken Campbell. The story, a contemporary epic, is Oram’s no-holds-barred autobiography spanning the years 1956-1979. (That’s 24 years in 24 hours).
Though it has also been written in novel form, it is as a drama that it wields its power and magic. The Warp is meta-theatre, one of those artworks like Ulysses or Sister Ray or A Season in Hell which goes light years beyond its medium. Such an immense work of self-documentation (not unlike Proust’s In Search of Lost Time), aided by the gift of a photographic memory for conversation, succeeds in becoming a new dimension in naturalism. The play is so amazingly lifelike that it makes you realise the extent to which your own life is a play… ie your own personal warp.
What of the action? Phil Masters – Oram, warts and all – is a young Devon lad with a passion for jazz and a chaotic mind. Blown out by his girlfriend, turned onto the “mental jazz” of Joyce and Eliot, he lands in bohemian London where he hooks up with gay scientologists, mad astrologers, visionary beggars, and Gurdjieff-spouting girlies. In the fabulous Sam Widges Cafe, he improvises his first poem to jazz, an ode to the spirit and the sufferings of the Red Indians. Constant run-ins with the police (who catch him fucking in Hyde Park) and with the psychic fascism of conservative people convince him that the state is an Orwellian-style social control machine and that “there is a war going on… between controllers and the controlled, between hip and square…” (It’s jam-packed with top-quality rants). He visits Paris where he stays at the Beat Hotel, spins dream machines, and meets the “master of timelessness” Krishnamurti. Further adventures in Turkey, Syria, Scotland, and a flying saucer conference in Ireland, are fascinating as well as very funny. (The play, in the spirit of its original director Ken Campbell, puts the fun back into profundity).
As a pageant of human nature, The Warp (for me) is a Canterbury Tales of the hippie era. Someone else said A Pilgrim’s Progress. Undoubtedly it’s the story of a full-on contemporary quest for mystical enlightenment, and it seems very right for our times when the sheer bizarre mathematical fact of the millennium and 2000 years of Jesus myth has made even the most hardline cynics stop scoffing for a moment to wonder about the spiritual life.
The Warp is a mind-blowing life-changing work of art and a great theatrical tour de force of staging, acting, drama, poetry, music. It’s a 24-hour epic about the life of a poet! What more is there to say? “An ego trip!” shout the sceptics. Yes, it’s an ego trip… but so was Paradise Lost.
(The Warp ran originally at the ICA, Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, and the Edinburgh festival 1978-1980 directed by Ken Campbell and starring Russell Denton as Phil Masters. It was revived at Three Mills Island in 1997 with Alan Cox as Masters and was hailed as “an attempt”. Most recently, it ran at the Albany Theatre in Deptford once in March and for all five weekends in May 1998, followed by a weekend at the Spitz 26-27 September 1998, directed by Daisy Campbell and starring Oliver Senton as Phil Masters, and also at the Brentwood Theatre 16-17 January 1999 and twice at the Roundhouse, Camden in February 1999, directed by Ken Campbell and starring Johnny Stallings. Look out for it in the not-too-distant future… It’s not just another cultural commodity. It’s an immortal work of the human spirit).