Promenading in a very tight space
Our Glass House By Commonwealth Theatre, staged on an estate in Bradford; reviewed by Javaad Alipoor …
On Sunday, I took a group from the participatory theatre project I work on to see Our Glass House, a site specific piece of theatre on a Bradford estate. And not just anywhere on the estate but in a slightly cramped, two-up-two-down style post-war council house. Anyone who has worked on participatory theatre projects will know the expectations that participants have about what we mean by the word “theatre” (alternately sub GCSE drama, pretending-to-be-a-tree games, or something to do with Andrew Lloyd Webber), and will recognize why it is so important for community arts that there are accessible, formally challenging, political and exciting pieces of work around.
The play was a challenging piece of work, both in its subject matter and staging. Confronting the issue of domestic violence opens any number of ethical questions which can be difficult to deal with, and it must be said that the company handled these admirably. In the first instance, every performance ended with an opportunity for the audience to discuss issues raised within the play in a safe setting, whilst the directors also let the audience know that the front door of the house would be left open, so, as was the case with one of the part I went with, audience members could step outside if the intensity of the play became too much to bear.
Perhaps more important than this though was the bravery of the writers and directors in selecting the stories that formed the play. It would be very easy to rock up to an estate in poor northern town and tell a story about working class men drinking and beating their wives, or focus on the supposedly endemic way that Muslim men abuse “their women”. Instead Commonwealth chose a selection of stories that explored issues of violence and abuse across ethnic and racial divides. One particularly, powerful moment being the echoing of an Asian woman’s story by a much older and much more middle class white women; indeed, the most literally close telling of violent passages that I saw in the show came from the upper middle class white character.
The first thing that struck me as I entered the house was the marvelous consistency in imagination held across the design of the show, made even more impressive by the fact that there had obviously been input from a number of different artists in the make-up of the house. A sense of dislocation and fracturing for instance was explored in a variety of different but coherent ways, for example through the pieces of a piano fulfilling different functions in different rooms, as pieces of furniture that had been smashed, or crawling their way up a ceiling, and as a collage made of different diaries, amongst other things.
As well as the visual design, the show made very effective use of some powerful sound design and choreography, the action moving towards more stylized moments of dance and chanting at points of particular emotional power. The play managed the difficult task of doing this without losing the uncomfortable feeling of violence and menace inherent in the rest of the piece.
The acting was solid throughout, with the challenge of this kind of work met admirably by the cast. The cast did seem to have a problem, however, with the occasional moments in the story where the audience were encouraged to interact more closely with them. One moment in particular stands out for me, when one of the characters – a young woman – is reliving a story that took place inside a nightclub and she begins by dancing around her bedroom, attempting to invite the audience in with her. When no one joined her the story carried on, but I felt that this was linked to the phenomenon, not uncommon in promenade experiences, of audiences crowding round the doors to spaces, instead of really getting inside for a look around even though they are generously invited in by the director. I think this relates to the one real weakness of this piece from my point of view as an audience member; it was never really made clear to me who the audience were, and we were therefore unsure how we were to behave.
Unfortunately, some members of my group had to be back home to look after their children, and so we were not able to take part in the post show discussion. We did, however, have our own on our way back up to the bus stop, which included some input from a group of residents we met on the street. The residents were proud of the show, and were talking about it with excitement. The group I came with left buzzing. We debated the issues presented passionately and talked about how the group could participate in, make and see more theatre “like this”. High praise, well earned.
Javaad Alipoor is a writer and theatre maker, and one half of Northern Lines, a Bradford based Community Theatre Project.
@northenlines (with the misspelling)