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Rooms — a haunting immersive experience at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre

Rooms — a haunting immersive experience at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre

Rooms — a haunting immersive experience at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre
April 14
19:46 2019

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This is a piece that brings a new twist to the phrase “walls have ears”. Enda Walsh’s immersive installation (transferred from the Galway International Arts Festival) picks up on the idea that rooms retain a trace of what happens within them — the violent exchange, the illicit encounter, the years of unspoken despair — and creates a set of interiors that release their secrets. It’s a quiet, haunting and meditative experience.

We arrive in the empty Silk Street Theatre to find a handful of anonymous-looking, prefabricated cabins, dotted about the space like some strange holiday camp. Step inside and you discover five meticulously decorated rooms (designed by Paul Fahy), each one a repository of intense emotion.

Audiences (in small groups) are encouraged to explore the room: peer inside the fridge, open the drawers, scrutinise the photos. There’s a guilty pleasure in nosing about in someone else’s space.

Then a recorded voice starts speaking, spilling out a private drama: the actors are in the room, but not physically so, reinforcing the idea that the occupant is both absent and present at once.

There’s the neat, pastel-shaded bathroom: impeccably clean, smelling freshly of shower gel, a pair of small slippers in the corner suggesting the presence of a child. Only the smashed sink and abandoned hammer testify to something much more sinister: a violent event which the voice (Paul Reid) circles around as he unpacks the years of resentment that led up to this terrible crisis amid the toothbrushes and towels. There’s the narrow kitchen, where a depressed wife (Eileen Walsh) saw her life leak away between the toaster and the fridge. There’s the child’s bedroom, abandoned by a small girl (Charlie Murphy), which (though concrete to us while we are in it) exists now only in her memory.

This kitchen speaks of a life leaking away in ‘Rooms’ © Andrew Downes – Xposure

You can feel the imprint of great Irish dramatists in the piece — Brian Friel and Conor McPherson in the use of confessional monologue and, most notably, Beckett in the creation of a twilight world in which characters speak to assert their existence. That’s probably most true of Office 33A, a derelict work space, home to a silent love (voiced by Donal O’Kelly), and of Room 303, a cheap hotel room, in which we eavesdrop on the final thoughts of a travelling religious salesman (Niall Buggy) as he confronts his loss of faith and reflects his bitter surprise at dying in this dismal space.

Loneliness is a thread running through this deft, poetic and quietly touching piece and one that makes the presence of the audience significant within the narrative. Walsh’s piece hovers on the borderline of theatre, exploring in some ways the space that companies such as You Me Bum Bum Train, Punchdrunk, Look Left Look Right and Dublin’s ANU Productions have examined, by putting the audience centre stage. In Rooms, we occupy a curious role — part detective, part therapist, part priest — but what’s certain is that the act of listening is important. Unheard in their lifetime, these lost characters’ voices linger with you as you leave.

★★★★☆

To April 19, barbican.org.uk

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