Camden Fringe 2018: Empty Room
As part of a movement that sees women sharing their lives and experiences from the exceptional to the mundane, there has been a recent spate of work wherein women tell semi-autobiographical stories by blending genres and media. These stories raise what was considered unintellectual domesticity to highbrow culture. In literature, we have Claudia Rankine’s prose-poem Citizen, and the recent stage adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home works similarly. The musician and writer Miriam Gould’s first solo work, Empty Room, fits right into this burgeoning tradition. The piece is about her upbringing and her relationship with her parents, jazz legends Rachel Gould and Sal Nistico. A one-woman show blending song and speech, Empty Room examines how music can save us and how family forms us.
The performance is split between four perspectives, all played by Gould: her current self, her 14-year-old past, her mother and her father. She ricochets between formats, her mother’s smoky singing, her father’s scat-like speech and an adolescent burble, in between playing the violin, and also changes clothes to represent these characters. As the performance goes on, the lines blur. Her father’s plaid shirt with a single stiletto, then a teenage hoodie over that, reveals how tight family bonds create complex, overlapping roles and identities. Unfortunately, due to the time constraint of the show (an hour), the characters of her parents are never quite fleshed out enough and they end up quite cartoonish and hazy.
The hour is carried through, however, by the excellence of Gould’s performance. She is breathless and personal, especially while playing herself, often stumbling over what seem like unrehearsed lines in a way that adds an urgent intimacy to the piece. What is also undeniable, and subverts the “one-woman show” stereotype, is how funny she is. Small asides, such as admitting she is about to play the violin “very sweatily”, are charming, while her 14-year-old self shows much more advanced comic chops.
As Gould gushes over Shostakovich, makes false starts and yells over too-loud music, the audience can recognise themselves as precocious teens and laugh. But before they can settle in, the artist breaks character to remind us that she is talking about long-dead Russian composers to avoid talking about the more recent death of her father, which is far more difficult to explain. This is what Gould leaves us with, and is the essence of this new un-genred genre: the small tragedies of our home lives are almost impossible to express but they deserve an attempt, and an attempt through beautiful art.
Photo: India Roper Evans
Empty Room is at from 7th until 9th August 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
For further information about Camden Fringe 2018 visit the festival’s website here.