The Shape of a Suitcase

In the first paragraph of The Shape of a Pocket (2001), John Berger describes the room where he is writing. ‘The ceiling of the bedroom is painted a faded sky blue. There are two large rusty hooks screwed into the beams and from these, long ago, the farmer hung his smoked sausages and hams. This is the room in which I am writing’. It is a simple device that Berger uses to bring us into the world of the book. It is a simple device that invites us in in the present tense to the present space. Georges Perec does something similar in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974) when he lists an inventory of a room and arrives at the pen and the paper with which he is writing the list.

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Speaking to co-director, Ollie Smith, after our second sharing of A Seventh Man at Nottingham Playhouse, I describe the idea of giving the audience a ‘soft landing’ into the show. Perhaps talking to them about the space we are in (the wooden shed that resembles the barracks where many migrants live in the book) and the journey we are taking (into and beyond the book) and finally the suitcases and photos we give them at the beginning of the performance that become symbols of their home, mementoes of the families they have left behind. I propose a new introduction that explores these ideas. The shape of home. The shape of family. The shape of history. The shape of a story. The shape of a past. The shape of a present. The shape of a future. The shape of a suitcase.

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We already borrow from Berger and Perec the device of placing the audience in the room with us. This text is performed halfway through the show when we are describing the barracks where the workers live in cramped conditions, where ‘time off is time wasted’ as there is nothing to do there.

C       In the main building of the barracks there is a washroom with seven hot water taps, seventeen cold water taps, five lavatories, and five showers. You sleep four to a room. The room measures four metres by five and a half: walls and ceiling are wood. The heating is adequate in winter.

A       Apart from the cramped space the main inconvenience is noise. And this is made worse by the fact that each shift gets up and goes to bed at different hours. Voices and footsteps sound very loud, even from the next room.

B       In your room you have a bed, a small metal wardrobe with a locked suitcase on top of it, two small shelves, the walls around you, the ceiling above you, and a corner to pin your pictures on.

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This turn from the third-person (he/the migrant worker) to second-person (you/the audience) is critical to how we have reconfigured the text and made it site-specific to the S.H.E.D. As our performers share this text they are also drawing out an outline of the barracks on the chalkboard and inviting the audience to help them measure the shed and drawing the measurements in chalk on the walls and on the floor. The audience are workers too. Ollie and I found in Lincoln and Nottingham that we could contribute to the action by banging on the shed panels and shouting in other languages (e.g. Dobro – OK in Bosnian) when the text talks about how you can hear noise from the next room. This gives us potential to immerse audiences in the story from inside and outside.

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Ollie rattles the wall when we talk about gravel hitting the train carriage and at Lincoln an audience member jumped up. We have started taking suitcases from performers at one point to represent them being passed out through a train window, and wearing hard hats, and eating bread, as we become workers too, part of the ‘experience machine’ of the piece. As we move toward the final sharing at New Perspectives next week we need to fine-tune these moments and work out how we want the overarching journey to feel for the audience. Like Berger, we want to invite them into the world of the book. We want them to share the present space with us and reflect on the journey we are making and why we are making it. We want them to reflect on the shape of their suitcase.

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Images: Julian Hughes