An ordinary house, on an ordinary street. You let yourself in with a key attached to the door-knocker by a piece of string. All seems calm; music gently fills the house. You look round tentatively, having been invited to explore, not sure what you’ll find. Mixed with the customary anticipation felt at the beginning of a show, there’s a sense of trepidation – although the doors to each room are open, you’ll have to be brave and step in to see what’s inside. You feel you might be trespassing into someone else’s world, or that you might discover something you’d rather not see.
Our Glass House explores the stories of victims of domestic violence. Each room of the house is a glimpse into a particular world, with one character inhabiting each. In the spick and span kitchen, Nicola (Liz Simmons), is hand-washing clothes in the sink, heavily pregnant; she talks slowly of the intense love between she and her partner. In the chintzy sitting room, an older character, Helen (Cynthia Whelan), kneels on the floor, rocking gently, unsure and anxious. Every detail in here is perfect; the ornate picture frames, the fake crystal decanter, Helen’s two-piece ladies suit with gold buttons – and the alabaster vase, smashed against the wall, shards suspended from the ceiling. The music intensifies, emanating from the cubbyhole under the stairs, where Woytek Rusin creates the live soundtrack with laptop, wires, tin cans, glassware and who-knows-what-else.
The floorboards creak as you wander round the house, finding it hard to leave one story but always aware you are missing something, somewhere else in the building. The stories bleed through the walls, the ceiling – muffled noises, shouts, bangs, as if the neighbours are arguing, or maybe your parents, in the other room. Helpless and removed, you can only try to understand what has happened so far in each fragmented story that you walk into. As the show progresses, the sense of each character’s confinement and isolation in their ‘home’ intensifies, along with the dread of the unseen perpetrator.
Moments of choreography unite the performance so that at certain times in the show the stories align – for example with each character rhythmically listing the memories that hurt them, and a shared meal, in the dark and exotic dining room, that all the characters attend. The tension at the table is excruciating as each character deals with putting on a brave face, not communicating with each other, mumbling platitudes. One by one they are overcome and each storm out.
The show’s design alone would keep you occupied for most of the hour, exploring the intricate details in each room, the nooks and crannies, the carefully chosen props and clever devices. The programme lists an astonishingly long and varied list of design collaborators, and their work pays off. Beautiful shadow play, puppetry and projections happen in Sufiya’s room, an Indian character who speaks no English, hiding messages behind lift-the-flap slits in the luxurious wallpaper. Upstairs, Dan’s room is full of shattered wood, crafted into tree-like structures. His story is less rooted in the home as he has been cast out by his violent wife and forbidden from seeing his children. He uses the house differently to the women, is less confined but less at home too – climbing on furniture and up the stairs, arriving late, leaving early through the window.
The ending is perhaps most moving. The audience find themselves led outside, where Nicola and Charlie (convincing child actor Jaden Bardouille) are boarding up the front window as Dan gets in a car and drives away. The board says ‘It’s over’. But someone is still inside, silently pasting messages to the window, that world still a part of them, and we’re helpless on the pavement, looking in from our ordinary street.
Common Wealth have created a deeply affecting piece of immersive theatre, dealing sensitively and realistically with difficult issues. The only disappointment is the amount of material that each audience member must miss during the hour. In an after-show discussion, directors Evie Manning and Rhiannon White talk about plans to tour the show. Good luck to them – Our Glass House deserves a wider audience.