I’ve spent a lot of this year – not least on this blog – arguing that theatre-makers could be more considerate of the feelings they provoke in their audiences and the state in which they leave people at the end of a show. Work that deals with sensitive topics, in challenging ways, that might trigger unexpectedly strong personal reactions within its audiences, owes a duty of care to the people who have paid money to see it, which might include consciously providing safe spaces for discussion and decompression directly afterwards for anyone who needs them. To an extent, that’s been a philosophical argument: I’ve attended intense and provocative shows with strangers and witnessed first-hand how upset they were by the work, which led naturally to wondering how theatre-makers (and critics) might be able to help them process that upset. Within that philosophical framework I’ve also argued the opposite, asked whether people are actually ready, immediately post-show, to talk about their experience in public. However, I now know personally how useful that safe space for discussion and decompression can be. Here’s how:
Last night I saw Our Glass House, by the young company Common Wealth, a work about domestic abuse staged (in this segment of its tour) in a regular terraced house in a quiet backstreet in Camden, north London. It lasts only an hour, but within 15 minutes I felt as though all the veins in my chest were tied up in knots, and after 45 minutes I thought I might have to leave because of the panic clenching my lungs. There are five rooms in the house, and six people: a pregnant woman, an Indian woman, an older well-to-do woman; a black teenager, a schoolboy, and a white man who comes across as a regular Joe. Each one of them is being abused: sometimes the violence is physical, and sometimes it’s psychological, with a parent or partner belittling, controlling, exercising power, making normal life impossible. The audience move around the house, picking up bits of story here, incidents there; more than once I was rooted to the spot in a hallway or a quiet room while something awful happened elsewhere, flinching at every thump and scream.
Our Glass House is incredibly hard to watch. It’s made with scrupulous care: in demonstrating that people of all ages, classes, ethnicities and genders experience abuse; in comprehending the myriad insidious shapes abuse takes; in utilising real-life testimony with tenderness and respect. It’s not a straightforwardly verbatim piece: the text has clearly been composed/written (by Aisha Zia) and a lot of the violence is conveyed in a terrific sound score performed live by Wojtek Rusin. That aestheticising troubled me: despite the huge sign hanging outside the kitchen window declaring “YOU ARE HERE AS WITNESS”, at points I found myself wondering what we, the audience-members, were doing there, what the purpose is of experiencing through art-voyeurism a representation of domestic abuse. Particularly if you have any degree of real-life experience of domestic abuse.
By the end of the piece, I was choked, and I’m not sure I would have made it far on the long walk back to the tube before sinking to the pavement and crying uncontrollably. But instead of opening the door of the house and shooing everybody out, Common Wealth invited the audience into the sitting room for a chat, to share responses to the show and ask questions. So I sank to the carpet and listened. I listened to the work’s director, Evie Manning, talk about the abuse she had witnessed in her own family, and a woman from the audience talk about conversations she remembered having with friends, dating back 10, 20 years, that she hadn’t thought about in years, in which those people had intimated that they were experiencing abuse. I listened to discussions about how surprisingly common it is for men to experience abuse (one in six – for women it’s one in four), and how most murders that result from domestic abuse happen after an attempt at escape. I listened to Manning talk about the company’s work in the council estates and surrounding streets where the work is staged, how commonly she hears women say: yes, I know about that. And as I listened, my throat softened, my lungs unclenched, the veins in my chest untied themselves.
It went on: Manning talked wisely, inspiringly, about the different public bodies she brings to see the show – representatives from police forces, the NHS, domestic abuse services – and how Our Glass House makes them all acknowledge how much work they need to do. She talked wisely, inspiringly, about how important it is to listen out for hints that someone might be being abused, physically or psychologically, and take action, guiding friends or family to the support they might need to extricate themselves from the situation. And she talked wisely, inspiringly, about the need to break the taboo surrounding domestic abuse, to get people talking out loud about it – just as we were doing in this post-show discussion.
The discussion lasted no more than 30 minutes, but it ensured that I left the house feeling like I understood what we had all been doing there, clearer as to theatre’s role in opening up conversations, and appreciative of every measure Common Wealth are taking to ensure that the conversation reaches beyond the usual theatre audience. Above all, I left the house grateful, that I hadn’t been thrust out into the dark lonely backstreets of Camden to deal with Our Glass House alone, but had been given a safe space to process and decompress. The experience has given me new appreciation for my own argument, a new urgency to my advocacy of care.