Wester Hailes, a suburb of Edinburgh, is about as much of a potential tourist destination as the moon. Off the beaten track, yet only a thirty-minute bus ride out of the city centre, Wester Hailes is the setting for Common Wealth’s site-specific drama concerning domestic abuse. Constructed around a series of verbatim accounts from male and female survivors of domestic abuse, it feels almost trivialising to call Our Glass House ‘immersive’ theatre: aligning it in the same vein with Punchdrunk’s masked hedonism and glamour seems inappropriate. Our Glass House is not casual spectatorship of a series of detached encounters: it is an assault on the senses.
A normal house, on a normal estate just outside of Edinburgh. Slightly down at heel but clean and calm. Children play on the street. We enter the house in pairs and in doing so enter the world of six vulnerable individuals. A man makes a video diary in a room full of broken furniture; a child wanders around in a school uniform; a pregnant woman feverishly wrings out wet clothes; an Indian woman mutters words I cannot understand, sorting through her jewellery box; a teenage girl practises pole dancing in a room plastered with pictures ripped from Zoo and Nuts magazines; an older, refined looking lady wearing pearls anxiously looks out the window.
There is a small garden with clothes flapping on the washing line and the words ‘YOU ARE HERE AS A WITNESS’ inscribed on the wall. It is impossible to remain detached, everyone is involved or implicated in this incredibly involving show which makes a science out of the voyeur. Many vignettes staged are very difficult to watch - yet it seems cowardly to turn away. By making Our Glass House such uncomfortable viewing, Common Wealth are reminding us that it is so easy to close our eyes to the reality of domestic abuse thus allowing the vicious circle to perpetuate.
Something difficult to get right with ‘immersive’, site-specific theatre is striking the balance between individual sequences and fluid narrative - it is easy for the action to descend into unrelated, incoherent fragments. Our Glass House have countered this by having a very free structure: you can wander around the house at your leisure yet occasionally the stories collide into collaboration. A tension-filled mealtime: each person cringing in expectancy of a criticism or a blow. A vicious soundscape made up of crashing plates, books being thrown and the aggressive ticking of a typewriter. At the climax, the actions bleeds out of the house into the street showing that violence cannot be contained within walls and impacts on entire communities.
After the experience (calling it a show seems to imply a factor of enjoyment or entertainment), a representative from Women’s Aid, the creators, actors and observers gather in the living room for a post-show discussion. The directors talk about the nucleus of Our Glass House, which was first performed in Bristol, and invite the watchers to contribute threads of discussion and ask questions: an incredibly compassionate, responsible way to close the pages on such an affecting experience. One director asks, ‘If you saw something, heard something, that didn’t seem quite right, if you suspected someone was suffering domestic abuse - would you report it? Or would you consider it to be not your business?’ This is a question we need to ask ourselves.
A harrowing, invasive play that challenges the voyeur to take responsibility for the things they witness. There are no innocent bystanders in domestic abuse.