I went to see the start of the Siteless Festival with Shady Jane’s award winning show ‘Sailing On’.
I always avoid reading reviews about shows before I see them. All I knew is that the show was taking place in the girls toilet, which for the festival would be located at the all-girls private school in Reading. From the shows blurb, I also knew that Opheila and Virginia Woolf had something to do with the shows themes or inception. And that was it.
I arrive slightly late with a friend, screeching my car into the Nurse’s Reserved parking space in the School’s car park. We power walked inside and were told to sit down and wait. There was already an intimate group of ones and twos who were quiet, waiting patiently in the low, deep red chairs that are only ever in schools. On the surrounding walls there was a small exhibition of the students’ work, with harrowing faces and colourful twirls all over. We seem to be waiting for another audience member and when she arrives we are led through the corridors of more faces and twirls and into the toilets, the only instruction being to feel free to walk around and look inside the cubicles as we willed.
On entering the toilets, the floors are gleaming with a thin skin of water. The lighting is attached to the top of the toilet cubicle’s frame. People shuffle in, unsure of really where to put themselves; men in particular have a secret-embarrassed smile painted on their face, muddled with naughty exhilaration at arriving in this girls-only world. But not tonight.
The play starts with two girls talking from two closed cubicles. At this point I am fully ready for my anticipated girl-talk-in-the-toilet scenario. Soft tapping from inside one of the cubicles sounds, which is confirmed to be that of a type writer, gently teasing out a script. This reveals the girls to be Virginia Woolf and Ophelia (or at least playing those parts), who have been stuck in the toilets as the place between missing and drowned. Who knew?
It was not until they came out of the cubicles timingly (after the sound of reeling toilet paper and flush of the chain), that they reveal themselves to be damp and caked with mud all over. They nonchalantly address the audience, describing their situation: the things they see, the people they know, and one girl in particular, who they describe as being a regular. Romola, they say, is immensely sad and shares a grief similar to their own, information that they have gathered from ‘borrowing’ her diary and ID and anything else they can get their hands on; so they have taken it upon themselves to help her.
They hurry back into their cubicles as the entrance to the toilet yawns open and Romola enters, in her regularly timed manner. She seems bemused by the crowded audience members, but continues to use the facilities before leaving, but is brought back having forgotten her bag.
By now Virginia and Ophelia have started to orchestrate an atmosphere, which the girl and audience curiously watch play out. A sense of mourning is implied through wreaths; nostalgia of home videos; setting of seaside with beach stones being drained into the central cubicle and tossed across the main floor of the toilets; water being poured; and a familiar red jacket, floating in the door.
The show is all about atmosphere, and the clever use of dramatic affects in the performance was what made it so poignant and sensational and champions this type of immersive theatre, as opposed to large impersonal passive performances. Small details from the performance continue to thrill me in their subtlety, like the lip-sticked drawn waves, which flickerd in the shaking light to create the motion of waves in the room and the written on toilet paper soaking into the wet floor and allowing ‘I love you’ to slowly dissipate. The darkness became oppressive and terrifying and the execution of it was moving.
The audience on the edge of their (non) seats, when the story finally reveals itself, and does so in the simple lip-stick smeared scroll of ‘A Suicide Note, From Your Mum’ onto the mirror. Virginia and Opehlia’s plan then, seems like nothing more than exorcism of the Romola’s sad story. She gives her own touching account of the event, laced with intimate details such as the way her mother removed her gloves, one finger at a time. The final image of drowning is violent and left me reaching out in the dark for my friend’s arm to gently squeeze, who herself was recoiling from the sight.
Virginia and Opehlia then shrink back to the toilet and Romola gathers her things to leave. She hesitates by the door to take off her mother’s wet red coat, and hands it to a man in the audience. He is left gripping it when the lights rise and slowly folds it over his arm, with his own brown leather jacket. One-by-one the shaken audience start to clap to the end. This becomes more excited and loud with accompanying cheers as the performers emerge. The lights shows a new sense of nervous wonder and relief on everyone’s faces.
The girls thank everyone for coming. They are breezy and friendly and tell people to look up their next big show which will be touring in January. People are prompted to leave and do so slowly.
I stand still at first and confide in the two perfromers (Ophelia and Virginia) who are still damp and muddy, about how great it was. I try to tell them about my pounding heart and how I reached out, but they just look modestly amused and share with my friend (who is a budding theatre maker herself) how they set things up and say they would be keen to see anything that either her or I made in the future.
On leaving the Abbey the harrowing faces on the walls seem worst still and the bright light of the reception seems offensively glaring. I was happy to get outside in to the cold, dark car park and into my car to just sit and think and let my heart catch up with my mind.
If you get a chance to see this show then please do- it was fantastic and the individuals in the company themselves seem great. I can’t wait to see their next show.