A corridor is not a destination. It’s a place of transition, of passage; a place people move through, not to.
First staged in 2007, Stan’s Café’s mesmeric production takes place in a chilly warehouse in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. The stage takes the form of a stretch of corridor two metres wide and fourteen metres deep; facing the audience end-on, the space is spot-lit from above and has doorways on either side, doorways through which it’s impossible to see. It’s a space through which people are constantly moving, darting from one entrance to another in various guises; moments of stillness are rare and all the more potent for that.
This corridor becomes an ‘anywhere’ space; it is a prison, a hotel, the hallway in an apartment building, an office complex. It slip-slides through time, from the Elizabethan era to the recognisable present, a collage of narrative fragments that often overlap and intersect. Sometimes it is lit with torch beams like some early episode of The X Files, at other times by the lamp of a Florence Nightingale figure who peers with concern into the various rooms.
The act of looking in and on is a recurring trope. In a production performed with minimal dialogue and a cranium-pounding soundtrack, the audience are left to guess at what’s going on behind the doors. At one point police officers force their way through one doorway while a Jewish man and his wife emerge from another pushing a pram laden with their possession. In this way the responses and reactions of the ‘characters’ become the main event. This is an incredibly powerful device, tapping into everything from the way that key incidents are reported in Greek drama to the modern obsession with conspiracy, with shadowy goings-on behind closed doors, decisions being made and plots being hatched. This is emphasised by the vaguely sinister black-suited men with earpieces who pop up at various points in the proceedings to stand guard, arms folded and vigilant.
Only on a couple of occasions does the production break this pattern of observing from the outside, most notably when the aftermath of a raucous office party circa 1985 segues into a scene of soldiers tormenting prisoners in Abu Ghraib. A gaggle of quivering men, cuffed and hung-over, become meat for manipulation, to be posed and humiliated. It takes a moment for the click to come, for this transition to sink in.
Constance Brown is steeped in cinematic reference, sometimes overt, sometimes less so. Various genre markers are employed, sci-fi, horror, a semiotic smorgasbord. In one of the more blatant moments a priest armed with holy water pursues a twitching, wild-eyed girl in a nightgown. There are nods to The Shining and at one point a 1950s B-movie blob engulfs the whole space. It is also frequently witty, with a number of neat visual gags: a woman in a burka walks past a woman whited out with terry cloth and cold cream and they both register curiosity and amusement.
The act of cleaning is a recurring theme: people mop and sweep and polish the walls. At one point the buzz of a vacuum cleaner adds another layer to an already pulsating soundscape. There are echoes of Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things: these are the people who clean up the mess of the world once the lights have been switched off. It’s also difficult not to think of Rupert Goold’s staging of Enron when documents, shredded in panic, rain down like so much wedding confetti. And who is Constance? It’s not always clear. She’s the woman on the edges, in the background, peering through doorways, inquisitive, bemused, aghast.
The piece is performed by seven cast members, though one feels the need to double-check that number as there are so many costume changes (there are 68 distinct characters in all), so many shifts, that it often feels like the work of far more. The production has a relentless quality and teeters on the brink of becoming wearying as it tips over the hour mark, but director James Yarker ensures there’s enough textural variety to stop it becoming too oppressive. At the end the audience are invited to inspect the spaces behind and between for themselves, to get a glimpse of the workings behind the seemingly seamless. This just adds another layer of appreciation to what is already – in so very many ways – an exciting piece of theatre.