As Enda Walsh’s adaptation of Max Porter’s novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers, starring Cillian Murphy, finishes a short run in the Barbican’s main theatre, his ongoing immersive installation Rooms sets up shop in the stripped-out Silk Street space.
Created for Galway International Arts Festival, and added to by Walsh year on year, the project is essentially a series of 5m x 5m white boxes, within which various rooms have been meticulously created. Six audience members at a time visit each room in turn – there are five rooms so far, all available here – and, after a few moments, dense, short, one-person plays are piped in via hidden speakers.
They’re all about 15 minutes long, and they are all extremely intimate, taking you far inside other people’s darkest thoughts and feelings. Samuel Beckett’s influence on Walsh has never been more apparent: it’s like taking a deep-dive into five messy, miasmic spiders’ webs of dreams, regrets, angers and anxieties. Easy listening this isn’t, but there’s undoubtedly something compelling about remembrances as raw as these.
In a luridly pink girl’s bedroom, the voice of a woman (a whispering Charlie Murphy) recalls how she ran away from home as a child, fleeing the cold, careless life of her parents. In a gleaming new bathroom, a man (a feverish Paul Reid) dwells on his long-lost brother and their traumatic childhood. In a fusty, dusty hotel room, a travelling priest (a desolate Niall Buggy) searches for the certainty he once preached.
There’s not much of a common thread, save for each piece’s emphasis on memory, regret, and desolation. In the two best pieces, an abused housewife (Eileen Walsh, reflective but rigid) stands stock-still at her kitchen sink for days on end, drowning in a sea of regrets and recriminations, and a tongue-tied office droid (Donal O’Kelly, increasingly exasperated) works himself into a frenzy over an unconfessed love for a girl on the floor above. There’s an undiluted angst here that bleeds, simultaneously resigned and rage-filled, through the torrent of words.
The rooms themselves are works of art, too, artfully elevating the plays that are piped into them. Designed by Paul Fahy, and lit imaginatively by Adam Fitzsimons, they are overpoweringly atmospheric, multi-sensory spaces. A thousand dolls’ beady eyes stare at you in the girl’s bedroom. Air freshener hangs heavy in the air in the bathroom. Dust lies thick on the floor of the priest’s hotel room.
Visited one after the other over 90 minutes, as they are here, Walsh’s Rooms are an oppressive, absorbing and unnerving experience. They swallow you up, surround you with sorrow, and spit you back out again.