It starts with a journey down a narrow corridor, fist clenching wooden key.
‘Follow the yellow line’ the polite Usher says and I do, around the corner and into a foyer area, where I am met with a gust of wind from a machine that Jeremy Herbert, the designer, has created himself. As my hair blows and my cheeks and eyes are battered as if I am standing on top of a mountain, I am tempted to remain here, to continue to feel the gusts in my face and listen to the sound the wind makes. I don’t want anything else and I can’t hear anything else, only aware of a need to immerse myself in it, to let myself go in the rapid flashing lights that emanate from its surface. I’m one who craves aloneness and enjoys it all too well, but I am afraid that someone will come and disturb this brief relationship myself and the wind machine have struck up, or that my mind will interfere, the buzz of thoughts getting the better of me.. so I move on around the room, after all, there are four more ‘safes’, all a shrine to the senses and playing with light, sound, touch and smell; to explore.
Safe House, billed as an ‘extraordinary collaboration’ between multi- media artist and stage designer Jeremy Herbert and writer and artist Gabriella Sonabend, is an exploration of perception. It consists of a foyer area and four rooms, all of varying proportions, colors, lights and textures, into which the individual is invited to explore, take time in and engage with, as they listen to individual stories written by Sonabend, narrated at different speeds and inflexions by different actors.
The theme and emphasis is Home, hence Safe House, and each room seems a home within itself, a variation of the room before it, like a Matryoshka Doll. Each character has a story to tell, told in melodic and melancholy voices, and like the rooms, the language is starkly visual and minimalistic- I had in my head other writers and other voices, Viriginia Woolf, Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star in particular; I was struck by the bare simplicity of the writing, the poetic images and rhythmic tones, a gift to those narrating.. a girl for whom the years slide by as she attempts to fill her blank canvas with some projection of life, a man losing himself in the possessions of his house, seeking in them the comfort he may have sought and gained from others who once lived with him.
But proportion also skewiffs one’s sense of perspective. In one room in particular, my favorite in fact, one has to bend and crawl in, almost like Alice in Alice in Wonderland [Jan Svankmajer’s interpretation especially], but once inside one is in a satisfyingly bigger space than one is led to believe, although, being at the bottom of the structure, it feels like an inverted attic. There’s a small ventilator too and soon, if you stay in long enough, that ventilator, with shades of light pouring through it, becomes a blinded window, looking out onto whatever the imagination can imagine…like my friend and painter Magda Blasinska commented, if looked at from the far wall, it becomes a small house itself, a micro of the macro…
The point is, there is no right or wrong about how to experience Safe House, no right or wrong about how to react. One can slip into and out of the stories at any time, as one can the rooms. One is taken further away from oneself with them and yet the experience becomes a strange lulling over the self, a replenishing of the cells that is meditation without one realizing it. The play of light and sound and proportion is so subtle it is comforting.
If there is anyone, who, like me, enjoys the sense of safety confined, quiet and dark spaces gives, then they will appreciate Jeremy Herbert’s and Gabriella Sonabend’s collaboration. Inspired by Jeremy Herbert’s visit to the burial chamber in the Valley of Kings in Egypt, it is a pean to silence and the silent, and as a result touches upon something deeply primal and transformative. And one thinks, there is also this fact. What is a man’s life and how does one even gain entry to it and his or her stories? Even with those one esteems to be close to? How can we ever totally understand or appreciate another’s experience?
This journey started down a corridor clutching a wooden key, it ends with spiritual expansiveness and an awareness of the fellow man.
Safe House is at the Young Vic, SE1 (020 7922 2922,youngvic.org) until May 17. Admission is free and the audience is invited to enter individually for up to 20 minutes. Open Mon-Sat, 10am-10pm (last entry 9.30pm). No advance booking, but register at the box office on arrival.