We’ve been doing the senses in my writing group, so far smells and sounds (or more accurately silence) – fresh herbs, the sound of birdsong. What is the smell you remember from your childhood? Mine is the Bromley Lemon soaps my mother would treasure, the ones that came wrapped with crinkly tissue paper. Joy! A writer came the following week with one she’d found for me. It smelt exactly the same as in my memory.
So when I was having a coffee in the Young Vic cafe yesterday, I was intrigued by the idea of their exhibition, Safe Houses, which has four purpose built rooms, all offering a different sensory experience. It’s the concept of Jeremy Herbert and Gabriella Sonabend and I’d read quite a bit about it so I presumed I’d have to book. Especially as only three people can go in at any one time. I asked the guy on the door though, just off on the off-chance, and there was one of the wooden ‘keys’ left. Lucky. I took it and followed the yellow line down the corridor, round the corner, round another corridor, through two sets of double doors… and was starting to panic when I reached the Safe Houses building that now takes up one of the theatres. By this time I was so conditioned to following the line, that I even tried to get through the solid wall because that’s where the line took me. Hopefully no one saw.
There’s a huge wind machine in the first part of the exhibition, the sound and the way you can stand in front of it to let your hair rise adds to the magic. I have always wanted to do that. The building is blank from the outside, like a huge DIY experiment a teenage boy might build to keep parents out of his room. There are four doors though, one up a stairway, and if there is no key hanging outside you can go in. One at a time, for as long as you want. This is something you do on your own.
The first room is painted white, the floor is half concrete, half sand, but there’s nothing else to look out. Just the voice of an actor telling a story that you’ve come in on the middle of. Little details become important, the crunch of sand on your sole as you step back on the concrete, the marks of trainer soles left in the sand. There’s a lovely contrast between this lack of visual interest with the colour images in the story, about deep velvet sofas, rich tapestries in shades of rose pink, duck egg blue and beige. And sounds too, the voices of Great Men and how the narrator carried these words beneath her breath.
If there was at least a milky window in the first room, the second – accessible up the wooden stairs – was completely dark. After a while I sat gingerly down on the bed, and then lay down. The voice was at my ear level, as if I was being told a story in bed. It was full of images to offset the darkness – how after a couple have made love, he sees his unfinished wooden parquet floor, while she hears the words of Friends, Romans, countryman. The swimming pool he built was now stagnant, filled only with the yellow plastic ducks she’s started to collect. How she practices her leaving speech in different outfits. The sound of water accompanying this almost feels as if it is inside the room.
Having walked into the first two rooms, I had to wait outside for the next. I could hear the noise of the wind machine, the changing reflection of the lights. It was like waiting outside a classroom knowing I shouldn’t go in, but still nervous instead I should knock. The noise increased and suddenly I was writing up notes in a spotlight as if I was in a prison, alert. It was like being held in the story still, a 3d immersive soap opera.
The third room was like a sauna, another opaque window like in a health club. Again the story was rich – gold painted perrier bottles stuffed with silk tulips. I began to listen to the words about light and shadow. Suddenly the light in the room went off as if I had been caught writing again. My writing was a scribble, I probably wouldn’t be able to decipher it. The letters would just be random marks.
In the fourth room, I had to crawl through a tiny door, the only light was a grid at floor level but there was the softest carpet. I put my hand flat out, and rubbed it back and forth on the carpet as if it was grass, but then I realised that the story was talking about grass. Someone was trying to write their name, the ‘peculiar markings that make up his name’… I began to feel nicely uncomfortable as if the story was taking me over. I wasn’t going to be able to make it out. I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
I wanted to go back to the second room and lie on the bed and be told stories all day. But I left.
And back in the cafe, everyone was carrying on just as normal. There was still one key left on the hook.
Safe Houses is on until 17 May 2014 at the Young Vic, Mon-Sat 10am to 7pm. It is free and you can’t book, but only three people can go in at one time so you’re restricted to twenty mins max.