After receiving rave reviews at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Common Wealth bring their immersive piece about domestic violence to London. Based on interviews with survivors, the piece has developed into a powerful platform that aims to not only raise awareness of domestic violence, but build a sense of responsibility in us as witnesses
Meeting by a telephone box in a quiet, unassuming, residential area of North London, we are briefed on how the show works and to be mindful of any emotions that may be triggered by its subject matter. We are paired off, told which number house to let ourselves into and sent off up the street at intervals. As we walk towards the house, a young boy on a scooter who obviously lives in the street asks us what we are doing going into ‘the funny house’. We climb the stairs to the front door and let ourselves in.
It appears to be a nice, middle class North London home, tastefully decorated, music softly playing. In the front room sits an older woman, Helen, so still she almost looks like a sculpture, half a piano keyboard peaking out from the ceiling above her and the pieces of a broken vase suspended as if by magic the second it smashed on the wall. In the kitchen the heavily pregnant Nicola is in a dolls house-like kitchen of fake appliances. Sufiya, who speaks no English decorates her dining area with red and gold fabrics from a traditional wedding. Upstairs is a very young woman, Kayleigh, in a bedroom that looks like a private room in a strip club, complete with neon lights, empty bottles of alcohol, pictures of topless young women and a steel pole in the middle of the floor. A bathroom with urine still left in the bowl. A cubbyhole in the airing cupboard, filled with dinosaur drawings, toys and a huge hand-knitted blanket that extends out into the hallway forming a giant woolly spider’s web over the stairwell. A room of trees and a young boy, Charlie, at the window. Stories are hidden everywhere; on the bathroom walls that are papered with them, handwritten around a door frame, on the wall under the stairs, door numbers tell us the number of women murdered by partners, the number of women turned away from refuges, the percentage of cuts to services related to domestic violence.
A man, Dan, enters through the front door and runs up the stairs the trees room. The characters begin to talk about how they met their partners; about love. While it is just not possible to hear all the character’s stories, there is always a sense that their lives are continuing; we hear strains of dance music from upstairs, a pile of child’s drawings appear on the window ledge on the landing, we hear shouting, feel banging on the ceiling above, knocking on the walls from neighbouring rooms.
The characters go about their routines and as they do we hear more fragments of their stories. The male character tells us how his partner cuts herself to hurt him, how ‘… she’s not right’. The pregnant woman attempts to complete her huge list of domestic tasks which are written on plates and dusters to serve as a constant reminder, only to harshly reprimand herself when she finds that she has lost her door keys, even though she never goes out. There are moments when the characters come together in their respective rooms to join in set ensemble routines which serve to remind us that while they are all from very different backgrounds, they share their experiences in a gruesome way: they all try to justify their partner’s actions towards them, they all blame themselves, they are all complicit in some perverse way, too frightened to leave. Sound and percussion are used to give us a sense not only of the clock ticking down to when the partner may return, but also the horrifying mundanity of their daily drudgery. The rhythmic clatter of plates and money being counted is maddening as it builds to a crescendo of sound. There is a constant feeling of impending threat, never knowing when the perpetrators might enter.
This is a piece of theatre that makes very uncomfortable viewing and yet view it you must. The performances are so utterly believable, bold and without judgement. As witnesses to these lives, we are powerless to intervene and yet are transfixed by the surreal reality in which they exist. This is no more true than in the terrifying moment that Kayleigh re-enacts her near drowning by her partner in the bath - as an audience member I was keenly aware that I was standing next to the young boy’s den in the airing cupboard as I watched this scene.
However, they are not without hope. The characters find, if not the courage to leave for good, some closure to their stories. Charlie tells us of his plan (accompanied by a beautiful animation projected onto the inside of the front door) to take his mother to a house where they can dance, sing and make as much noise as they like. The characters, one by one, go out into the street. At this point we begin to see the real implications of the message written on a neighbouring house outside the kitchen window, ‘You are here as a witness’. A woman walking her dog stops to pick up and examine the enormous trail of sari material that Sufiya has laid along the pavement as she walked away. The curtains of adjacent houses twitch or are hastily drawn as Nicola shouts back at the house she is leaving for the last time with her son Charlie. We are all indeed witnesses. Our Glass House reminds us that behind closed doors there are stories that we cannot begin to imagine and yet they are visible to us; a shout, a smash, a bang, a scream. We must not ignore them.
Go and see this and if you know any young men or women, take them to see it too; they might find themselves thanking you one day.
© Madelaine Moore
Date reviewed 12.11.13
At a location in NW1 – for tickets book via Camden People’s Theatre
Run Dates: Until Saturday 30th November
Duration - 1 hr + up to 30 mins post show discussion
Nicola – Liz Simons
Sufiya – Balvinder Sopal
Helen- Cynthia Whelan
Kayleigh – Cerise Reid
Dan – Dave Hart
Charlie – Harley Kierans
Researched and created by Evie Manning & Rhiannon White
Director and Producer – Evie Manning
Assistant Director and Production Manager – Rhiannon White
Text by Aisha Zia and the Company
Live Sound Artist – Wojek Rosin
Set Design and Build – Russ Henry (Hot Soup House), Matthew Harding, Coco Banks, Tim Mileusnic, Tom Woodhead and Andrew Kerr
Animation – Andrew Kerr & Louise O’Conner
Illusion – Peter Clifford