The Destroyed Room starts with a question… sort of. It actually starts with a man telling us it starts with a question. He introduces the show by flashing us Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room on the projection screen above the stage. The photo documents a woman’s bedroom utterly wrecked with a hacked-open mattress, strewn clothes, and crumbling drywall. He goes on to explain that Wall was inspired by Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus, a painting which depicts the slaughter of the monarch’s concubines and the destruction of his possessions. By making clear its artistic genealogy, this man, this mediator, not only foregrounds ideas of ruination and suffering but also frames the stage, structuring and filtering meaning.
Director Matthew Lenton asks, ‘Would it be possible to stage a conversation?’ While this isn’t the question that opens the debate, it is the question that fuels most of The Destroyed Room. Performers Elicia Daly, Pauline Goldsmith and Barnaby Power sit around a coffee table in a semi-structured discussion with wine and snacks on the side-table, while two cameras orbit and film their conversation. It feels improvised, undirected, almost natural, with actors occasionally directing their attention to the audience as they ping their way through the Paris attacks, the refugee crisis, and what to do with videos of horrific acts.
But the naturalism is just a feeling. After all, this conversation is staged. It’s overdetermined, not only because the discussion revolves around current affairs and crises which have a painful and intimidating potency. And not just because the actors are being filmed with close-ups and framed shots running concurrently on the screen above them. It’s because the conversation is scripted, is already mediated, is coded and confined by its own structural apparatus. The dizzying side-steps and dull hum of daily rhetoric have all been analysed, probed, and orchestrated to represent what a conversation is. It’s successful and it’s infuriating, showing how utterly hollow that hum can be.
The point isn’t that actions speak louder than words or that discussion does nothing in the face of the refugee crisis. Instead, by emphasising varying forms of media and mediation, The Destroyed Room unravels these seemingly opposite terms like witnessing/participating, acting/speaking, mediated/real. Cameras, iphones, and film blur the line of what is real and what is represented. So does the stage. In the photograph Wall points out that the visible supports holding up the walls show that the room isn’t real. It’s been constructed. And of course it has, because it’s also a picture. Here, in this destroyed room, this isn’t a conversation. This is theatre.
And while it is intelligent, even cerebral theatre, there are some inconsistencies which are jarring. The performers are convincing but the relationships between them are at best confused and at worst contradictory. And the space in which they meet is somewhere in between a television set, a green room, and your best friend’s kitchen. These details distract from both the voices we’re listening to and the greater voice of the piece.
One aspect still manages to ring through: we as an audience are complicit. One performer says, ‘We all do, we all like watching things’. As an audience member, nothing could be truer. In a final, climactic stream of visual stimuli we are challenged to recognise our own voyeuristic tendencies, our own ignorance, and the rhetoric we use to assuage guilt. We are made blisteringly aware that we are, although passive, still voices in the conversation, still actors in the action, and our agency extends beyond the moment of destruction and the closing of the curtain.
The Destroyed Room is on until 14th May 2016. Click here for tickets.