This engaging piece by Kate Tempest – winner of the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for new work in poetry- encloses its characters in a simple glass-walled set. Their accusing and desperate shouts reverberate off its unyielding panes as they take turns to narrate the events that left 18 year old Jess homeless.
Each time a new character acts out their version of events, the cast speaks their lines ever so slightly differently, deftly creating a giddy sense of the tricks of memory, of moving between different people’s minds and perspectives.
Variously angled, the glass walls represent a house, pub, Tesco, launderette, interview room, squat, and office, lending a brittle fragility to the emotional and financial security these spaces represent and cleverly enabling the cast to explore the idea of being ‘sheltered’ as a both a physical state and a state of mind. Jess’s mother Ria (convincingly played by Jo Allit) yearns to become a nurse to ‘keep people safe’, but in the next breath reveals her own family’s insecurities as she pours out her problems in her job interview. Estate agent Paul (Ria’s boyfriend) describes himself as ‘in housing’, but his failure to pay the rent jeopardises his own home. When Paul’s life and mood fragment after kissing Jess, the glass house reflects this: panes fall to the ground and stick out crazily from their rightful places accompanied by the amplified sound of breaking glass.
Other critics have argued that Tempest’s distinctive voice is obtrusively present in the play’s verse, to the extent that her authorial presence elides the characters’ own personalities. I felt this to be true in the monologues, with their impassioned cadences and internal rhymes (some as startling as ‘busstop’ and ‘sweep the dustup’, most as blunt as ‘Jess is in a mess’). This is not to deny the arresting power of Tempest’s description of the homeless lady who terrorises Jess, with her ‘eyes like punctured footballs’. The only image of its kind in the play, it will stay with me forever.
After the play ends, audiences vote on which character’s story to explore further. The cast re-enact that story, and audience members shout ‘Stop’ whenever they want to come onstage and finish the scenes in a new way. The audience’s interventions are both facilitated and constrained by the play’s central interest in ideas of home; the questions we were asked to consider were ‘can this family stay together…in the same house?’ and ‘should these people be living together’? Whether wittingly or not, the ‘Joker’ managing the Forum repeatedly called our collaboratively-created happy ending, with all the characters back home in the glass house together, ‘the best accommodation we are going to reach’. Just so, the ending ‘accommodated’ the various needs and problems of the characters and physically ‘accommodated’ them in a place of shelter.
As audience members of various ages, genders, and backgrounds take the places of Paul, Ria, or Jess, it becomes starkly clear that homelessness can happen to absolutely anybody. With both the audiences and the acting company (the superb Cardboard Citizens) filled with people who have experienced homelessness, this play’s strength lies in its claim to resonate with reality. Whether or not Jess is bisexual (matters are left vague: ‘I didn’t know you were…’ proffers Paul, ‘I’m not, I just really like her’, Jess counters), the fact that her homelessness is precipitated in part by broken romances with both men and a woman alerts us to the over-representation of LGBT people in homeless communities. Paul succumbs to an acute contemporary temptation by accepting a Payday loan he cannot repay. Tellingly, Paul’s TV provides us with a brief glimpse of a transformed home where glass lets sunlight in, before Paul takes out the risky loan: ‘take a window, and transform it into a mas—‘ (masterpiece?), the TV says before Paul switches to the advert for quick cash at steep interest.
Giving audiences a safe space to explore hypothetical worlds and an opportunity to see the disastrous results of mistakes made by people they identify with, so that they do not make those mistakes themselves, has been one of theatre’s stated aims for thousands of years. Glasshouse allows the audience to actually act out, rather than merely contemplate, solutions to the characters’ problems. I did wonder what the forum aspect of Glasshouse adds to this learning process, though it is a recipe for a great deal of fun and a visible vehicle for engagement with the play’s issues.
As if the play’s title was not an explicit enough reference to the proverb ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’, the programmes are shaped like bricks with shards of glass clinging to them. Grasped in each audience member’s hand, and coupled with the fact that Jess and Ria’s surname is ‘Glass’, they reminded us that we were flinging our critical stones at vulnerable humans.
To my wandering mind, the dark frames and translucent panes of the glass house set looked exactly like the autumn plant commonly called ‘Honesty’, and I felt that this play invites us to criticise others’ lives and families much less than it calls us to turn our gaze inwards to our own lives and homes, and to seek transparency in our own actions and honesty about ourselves.