Lost in the Barbican

The site-specific play "Would Like to Meet" turns its audience into performers.

Fond as I am of London's Barbican Centre, I can never seem to find my way out, or indeed sometimes the way in. So it was with some misgivings that I signed up to non zero one's site-specific performance Would Like to Meet, which requires some guided wandering around the dreaded Labyrinth. In truth this is not, strictly speaking, the site-specific theatre that some might expect.

Would Like to Meet is really neither a specific response to the building's fabric nor a wild subversion of it. It is a much more pedestrian affair, in the literal sense, and a much more personal one. Participants are directed up anonymous stairways, past recycling bins, through doorways of what could have been Anywhere inc. What subversion there is, is of a gentler sort: there is a pleasing twist to the notion of such participatory drama - where the spectators are the performers - taking place in the marginal, public spaces of a theatre, outside the auditoria. Everything is playfully turned inside out.

The audience size is tiny, with only six punters allowed at any one time. Each is given a pair of headphones and an MP3 player and then follows a colour-coded, tailored itinerary, which at times intersects with other members of the group. The format does engender a certain amount of performance anxiety, which in my case was not entirely unjustified. Without giving too many specifics away, I was asked to dismantle a bit of kit, failed miserably, and consequently the chap in the adjacent booth did not get quite the experience he'd been led to expect. Who knows, maybe the muffled cursing behind the arras weaved its way into his narrative. It goes to show, however, that the finest of logistical tuning can be ballsed up by human error.

Our highly visible earphones were easily identifiable, a costume of sorts, which gave a bizarre legitimacy to our wanderings. I found the people swilling round the Barbican looking on intrigued at the participants, as we were scenically dotted about the place, or engaged in a mildly out of place transaction. And conversely everyone becomes a performer, a bit part in our own drama, as we gaze down at the foyer, not just the actor-plants that the theatre company have put in place.

It's a strangely comforting sensation, to be guided round a building by a disembodied voice, which is part audio tour-guide, part psychotherapist. Following the instructions confers a protective cocooning, as we take a mini break from decision-making.

More searching questions could have been asked here about the lengths we will go to when we are simply asked by an authoritative voice. But this would be to go beyond non zero one's remit, which concerns itself with a much quieter exploration of our interaction with strangers, our snap assessments, and the rich and varied biographies of those at whom we barely glance.

But the mind will wander, and some of the most innocuous suggestions can be met with stubbornness and even downright mutiny. One participant reflexively disliked his "voice" and so was ill disposed to do anything it asked. Consequently I'm not convinced we squarely tackled the agenda of these young Royal Holloway graduates, who earnestly ask "can you miss someone you've never met?" However it did become clear at the end of the forty-five minutes that there was a certain heterogeneity of experience amongst the participants, some of whom had been led down quite different routes. I found myself rather envious of their emotional, even haunting moments. If only I had picked a different colour!

Conceptual pieties about exploring "absence . . . memories and stories" aside, at least I now know my way round the Barbican.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear