There’s a sign that reads ‘YOU ARE HERE AS A WITNESS’, picked out in white lettering against a brick wall in Wester Hails. When you first see it you could easily mistake it for the signage of some obscure Baptist church. The next time you see it, through the bedroom window of an unassuming semi, it’s an admonition to turn around, to turn back to watch the unbearably painful performances in Our Glass House.
The script has been developed by Aisha Zia from the verbatim reports of survivors of domestic violence, and Common Wealth theatre have arranged it into a fierce hour of site specific theatre. To call Our Glass House ‘immersive’ almost feels a cheapening, for while Punchdrunk hide their audiences behind masks and their point behind sumptuous design, Common Wealth’s creation is a confrontation.
You enter the house in pairs, turning the door handle and walking into the lives of six people. Four women, a man in his thirties and a young boy move through the house or sit in tense silences. An older woman waits anxiously for someone to return, adjusting and re-adjusting a row of encyclopaedias until they’re perfectly aligned. A man records a desperate video diary in a room scattered with broken furniture. A teenage girl practises pole dancing in her bedroom.
Things build slowly, as threads of narrative emerge from muttered phrases and muted actions. By the time you’ve spent half an hour in the house, the atmosphere is almost unbearable.
Zia’s script emphasises both individual stories of abuse as well as the commonalities between them. Sections are spoken by one survivor and taken up by another, crossing age and language barriers in a community of suffering. During one stand-out sequence, the performers share a dinner, tensely passing plates and visibly cringing back from an expected confrontation.
Director Evie Manning has managed what so many immersive shows fail to accomplish, which is a sense of fractured but coherent narrative. She allows the story to flit easily between theatrical grammars, including moments of shadow puppetry and a searing rhythmic interlude, in which plates are clattered, books slammed and a typewriter prodded to create a soundscape that ticks like a time-bomb.
There is a slight problem with some of the aesthetic decisions Common Wealth have made, as though occasional snatches of visual abstraction are effective, one or two rooms lurch too far into magical realism, and detract from the veracity of the experience. Our Glass House is at its best when it’s at its rawest and most direct. It’s most powerful when it’s insisting on a renegotiation in its audience’s engagement with immersive performance. The usual rule of ‘follow the action’ feels inappropriate, as the encounters you search for are so uncomfortable. Common Wealth have called you here as witnesses, as an effectively nightmarish courtroom interlude reinforces, but you must choose to watch, choose to slam your face into its blades over and over again.
Ending with a brilliantly judged coup de theatre that leaves the air ringing, Our Glass House is a magnificent achievement and one that feels vitally important.