It’s night time. The gaze of the man on the other side of the aisle from me keeps straying from his girlfriend, who’s lying beside him, to the pair of women cuddled up together in the next bed. Behind him, two gay men rearrange their pillows and pull up the duvet. Across the room, the graduate student I met five minutes ago catches my eye and smiles with anticipation. As the lights begin to dim, I put down my glass of water, shrug off my dressing gown and get under the covers. The murmur of conversation in the circular room dies away as the soothing music that’s playing in the background grows louder. It’s time for Lullaby.
There’s an undeniable frisson of excitement packaged up in this adult sleepover, conceived by experimental performance group Duckie and produced in the Barbican Pit. After all, our bed is somewhere that we let our guard down; an intimate space for behaviour that’s generally not meant for public consumption. This doesn’t just mean sex. When we’re alone in bed we don’t need to worry about our hair, our clothes (if we sleep in any) or if our snoring sounds like a dying elephant. So there’s something unnerving yet thrilling about being on display in this way. However, if you go expecting something participatory you’ll be disappointed. What Lullaby certainly isn’t is speed-dating in pyjamas.
After a mug of hot chocolate and an ever-so-slightly nervous chat with each other (I wished I’d worn a nicer dressing gown), you’re guided by slipper-wearing ushers to your numbered bed, where you’ll be expected to stay (apart from the occasional trip to the loo) for the rest of the night. Once you get over the initial strangeness of the situation, this is actually quite relaxing. Most of us spend our days being responsible and dealing with other people, so being able to lay in companionable silence, without the need to make conversation, is a great relief. It turns the voyeurism of the event into something communal rather than a source of tension. Packed in like sardines, you’re in this together.
The performance itself takes place in two parts, divided by a ten-minute ‘interval’. During the first half, a mixture of storytelling and visual set-pieces, anthropomorphised animals and strange creatures dance around and on a dais in the centre of the room, accompanied by music that has the wild and rhythmic insistence of a heartbeat. Ducks with buttons for eyes wave at us and whales doff their trilbies, while shapeless things with tendrils for arms and plaits emanating from their mouths lurch around. These successfully-realised creations have the lawlessness and creeping unease of dreams; Jungian figments come to life, they’re disturbing but mesmerising. And you’d be surprised at how much pathos there is to be found in the image of a solitary octopus pirouetting under a glitter ball after everything else has left the room and the tune has stopped.
An atmosphere of wistfulness pervades the proceedings. After all, this is a lullaby for adults, not children. The semi-deflated silver balloons that hang from the ceiling evoke the quiet emptiness that fills a room after the party has finished. And the tale of a man who, following his wife’s death, populates his house with imaginary children reminds us that happiness can be as ephemeral as a dream. Sleep, however enjoyable, is a temporary refuge; we must once again face our lives in the morning.
In the second act, as the night advances, the on-stage performances are replaced by diagrams projected on to the ceiling illustrating the interconnectedness of the human body and Pythagoras’s theory of the harmony of the spheres. These images of circularity find their echo in the concentric organisation of the beds and are reinforced by the narration of the performers now standing on the periphery of the room. If I’d been more awake at the time, I might have found the social implications of this a bit twee; but I’d already slipped under the spell of its soothingly sing-song delivery. My last recollection before falling asleep is of strange translucent sea-creatures being wafted over my head. Like the best lullabies, the least important thing about Duckie’s eerily beautiful and utterly unique production is the words. It demands to be experienced.