Rooms at the Barbican
Enda Walsh appears to be the Barbican’s director of the moment, boasting a back-to-back bill of Grief is the Thing with Feathers, starring Cillian Murphy, and now immersive installation Rooms. This latest exhibition-meets-theatre experience is an ambitious venture combining a convincing series of five curated rooms with 15-minute, pre-recorded monologues – each a meditation on solitude, isolation and loss.
Produced by Galway International Arts Festival and bringing the five rooms together for the first time, the show guides audience members in small groups through the series of rooms to touch, sit, sense and listen to moving accounts voiced by some of Ireland’s most esteemed actors: Niall Buggy, Charlie Murphy, Donal O’Kelly, Paul Reid and Eileen Walsh.
Each room is sensually convincing to the point of discomfort, maybe even claustrophobia. Walsh has done an excellent job of conjuring a distinct atmosphere in each room; a luxurious bathroom reeks oppressively of men’s aftershave, a remnant of a brother lost, whilst the girl’s bedroom transports us back to the days of ceiling constellations and armies of soft toys. Lighting is used, or omitted, excellently to dramatic effect – sometimes dimming to darkness in moments of deep sadness, or brightening to the point of squinting in those of madness. This goes for voice, too, which is sometimes reduced to a whisper, or quickened in a desperate stream of consciousness.
This does mean that some of the rooms and stories are easier to engage with than others. The Bathroom and Kitchen, in particular, are difficult to follow. Some historical and political references to the Troubles in Office 33A seem equally lost on the Barbican’s very international, London-centric audience, and benefit from a more intimate understanding of Ireland’s recent history. We are therefore encouraged to find which room resonates with us – reminds us of a place, a person, or ourselves. The Girl’s Bedroom with Charlie Murphy does this very well, juxtaposing comfort and fear.
Thematically, the installation is brilliantly unique; it lingers long after you get home. Practically, there are some drawbacks to this sort of “theatre”. The presence of Barbican staff in each room is probably necessary, but somewhat ruins the immersive experience. We are encouraged to rummage around, yet there are doors that don’t go anywhere and drawers that don’t open, breaking the illusion. As the audience waits to rotate, we are thrust back into reality (and onto our phones). Sound leaks through the walls and ceilings of each box-like room, which can be distracting. Perhaps most importantly, the rooms are extremely hot and uncomfortable, with a couple of people stepping out for air.
Walsh’s insightful piece undoubtedly transports us to another place and makes us aware of the many stories a space can hold. Yet at the full-price cost of £30, I’m not sure it’s quite worth the money for what is essentially an art exhibition, not live theatre. If you are a Young Barbican member, however, it’s well worth a visit – so catch it before it’s gone on the 19th.
Photo: Andrew Downes
Rooms is at the Barbican from 11th until 13th April 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch the trailer for Rooms here: