Stillen

Lotte van den Berg
Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells
(2009)

Production photo

Stillen is an achingly human piece of avant-garde theatre by Dutch director Lotte van den Berg, hauntingly brought to life for the first time in the UK at Sadler's Wells' Lillian Baylis Studio. The stage is covered by what at first appears to be tiles, but soon is revealed to be hundreds of bars of orange and brown soap. Otherwise, the long space is mostly empty with only a few scattered, broken chairs and a piano.

Over the course of an intense and often silent seventy minutes we encounter the skeleton of a family - a young girl, a boy, a woman, a man, an old man and an old woman - as they attempt to connect with each other. Early on, the man attempts to touch the woman. Every inch of her seems to recoil at his touch as she removes his hand. As his attempt to physically connect with her escalates the scene is at once heartbreaking for him and horrifically violating for her. She escapes and violently plays the piano - music, sounds and song are the main expressions of emotion throughout.

Van den Berg has created a terrifying and touching portrait of the human need for physical connection with each other. When the man and woman finally embrace later in the piece it is deeply joyous - like that first kiss and hug with a lover following a huge fight which has separated you for weeks.

Dries Verhoeven's floor of soap is an effective metaphor for the slippery paths we walk across throughout our lives. When a vat of water is upended onto the young boy (who is blind), drenching him to the bone, it also transforms half of the stage space into a treacherous terrain. When the inhabitants of the space embrace the icy surface, sliding around like twelve year olds at a ball pool, it is wonderful. For the old man and woman it is a life threatening danger.

This couple is at the heart of the work. Their experience and wisdom, coupled with sexual frustration and world weariness, are apparent in the slightest of glances. The old woman lies on the floor and spreads her legs in anticipation - it is both playful and uncomfortable. When her partner decides not to take her up on her offer it is gut-wrenchingly painful. With this simple scenario van den Berg cleverly illustrates the power we hold over one another, and how devastating it can be to withhold your touch from another. Finally, the old man breaks: as the young man takes his hand in his, tears fall and then flood from his tired eyes.

Throughout, an eight year old girl with flowing blonde curls, dressed in a pink ballet dress watches on, hugs her mother or father but ultimately, is as isolated as the others. As she gently washes the face, hands and feet of the old man - the last touches he will ever have - we are reminded how much outward love and physical embraces we should shower our children with - it gets much harder as the years roll on.

Reviewer: Terry O'Donovan