Viola’s Room

Daisy Johnson
One Cartridge Place, London

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Viola’s Room

There are no live actors, no masks to wear and a maximum of five companions as we travel barefoot through the winding, narrow, curtained corridors following the lights that indicate the direction we must move in the labyrinth of Punchdrunk’s latest show Viola’s Room.

We begin our journey in Viola’s bedroom, each of us lying on a separate bed listening on headphones to the first minutes of her story, gently spoken by Helena Bonham Carter. Teddy bears sit on shelves, a stuffed owl lies on a bed and children’s pictures are pinned to the walls.

Soon, we are crawling through curtains on the far side of the room onto a narrow corridor, where we step lightly on what feels like very malleable foam flooring.

Princess Viola is lonely and isolated. Her parents have died and she is due to marry Hugo, a man she does not love. Restless, she is drawn to the wild trees beyond the grand palace and, leaving the betrothal celebration, finds her way to a special place in the darkened maze where she can dance freely, unrestrained by a world to which she does not belong.

It’s an old story, an ancient lesson we are expected to learn of what will happen to a woman who dares to resist or question the social subordination of women to men. We know how this story must end, yet we barely pause at the miniature palace behind the thin gauze curtains. The often ominous music hurries us on. We have no way of stopping the Gothic warning of the story. We listen, watch and walk.

Briefly, we rest in a small, realistic, reassuringly lit chapel where rain gently patters on the roof, but there is no escape for Viola in religion. Soon, we are back wandering the curtained corridors and passing through a banqueting room whose long table is laden with uneaten food and the figure of a seated man is resting, his sleeping head on the table. It cannot offer her the freedom she wants.

We emerge from the labyrinth to return our headphones and wash our feet that have walked through soft, cold sand.

One of my companions, K, praises the way the show allowed her to “embrace the darkness and my own emotion. There’s beauty to be found in darkness”.

I was more ambivalent about the experience. Daisy Johnson’s adaptation of Barry Pain’s 1901 horror story The Moon Slave as Viola’s Room is faithful to the original. It still carries the historically familiar warning to women who waver in their chains.

That shouldn't surprise us given the story was written when women were demanding the right to vote and was published only ten years after the outrage over the London performance of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in which Nora walks out on her family.

Most of us will find the story slight, an adult fairy tale relic of a past age that lacks the power to fully carry us on our less than fifty-minute stroll through the gauze-curtained maze. It is no longer the kind of warning that restrains women.

The following day, I managed to get to my local Extinction Rebellion meeting which, as usual, was two-thirds female and led by women planning to change the world. The stranger K, who enjoyed Violas’s Room, mentioned that she was off “to wild camp in Wales”.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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