#147 Lullaby at Barbican Centre
There we were, in the foyer of the Pit, Barbican’s deepest theatrical space, dressed in our jim-jams. We were drinking Bailey’s, slightly nervously, surrounded by forty or so other pajama’d types, all looking expectant and ever so slightly subdued. People were joking and smiling, but the mood was already hushed. None of us really knew what was coming next.
We were waiting for the start of Lullaby, a sold-0ut production by the experimental theatre company Duckie. Or had it already started? It was hard to say. We were going to spend the night in the Barbican, after or during some kind of show. The show had something do do with, well, sleep. And that was about all we knew.
We’d already been led by smiling, quiet PJ’d assistants into the Barbican’s backstage area. There, we’d changed into our pajamas in the dressing rooms, lit by the actor’s mirrors surrounded by bulbs. When we’d knocked back the Baileys nightcap (which we bought from the foyer bar, staffed by bedtime-ready tenders) we were finally taken into the Pit. The circular stage was ringed by thirty or so IKEA beds – singles and doubles – each with their own glass water bottle, eyemasks and earplugs. They were covered by duvets in tasteful blue and white (supplied by the clothing company Toast). We tucked ourselves in, let the strange combination of silliness, comfort and trepidation wash over us, and waited.
Soft music started – four actors dressed as giant octopi took to the stage and sung a little song. The octopi were wearing tiny caps. Then they put on gloves that looked like very small octopi. Slowly, ponderously, a parade of white, pillow-like figures marched around the stage: an elephant; a fish who doffed his top hat at us; a child’s version of a house, complete with pillow-smoke from the chimney. It was infantile in the extreme – the kind of theatre you’d create for the under-3s. But this wasn’t a show for children. Some people were sniggering. The appearance of a hapless pillow magician who mimed a trick in dumb-show didn’t help. But slowly, inevitably, a soporific spell was being cast. Suggestions of a story emerged in readings from a bedtime book: a family that imagined itself, the feeling of a house after a late night party. Some more singing, some more masque, and a heavy atmosphere of imposed peace had fallen on everyone.
In the interval, we brushed our teeth.
The second half used projections of the moon and stars, and referenced Archimedean music of the heavenly spheres. We could feel people around us drifting off to sleep, as if they were slipping down some unseen precipice. The pillow-figures reappeared, but this time there were deconstructed, pulled apart like cotton wool, like hypnagogic shapes seen on the edge of sleep.
As the lights grew dimmer and dimmer, the two female actors walked slowly around the auditorium, singing a cyclic lullaby, verse after verse, quieter and quieter. Mrs Brown had already drifted off.
Through heavy eyelids, I saw that in the silence that followed, the players were parading balloon-like cloud shapes around the stage. At first, they were softly lit from within, rustling almost soundlessly. Then their lights dimmed to nothing, and they continued for hours or minutes in the near-total darkness. It was almost impossible to stay awake. The spell had been cast.
I reluctantly took my glasses off, and finally allowed the rustling silence to lull me to sleep.
I must have woken up ten minutes later. The show had finally finished. Only a subtly glowing green moon remained on the stage. There we were, in the depths of the Barbican, in bed. Mrs Brown was asleep. It was just a degree too hot. The theatre ceiling loomed above me. There was too much Barbican around me. Everyone was surprisingly quiet. Fooling with my phone, I didn’t get to sleep for what seemed like hours. And it felt like only moments later that we were all opening befuddled eyes to a fake dawn, complete with the cheeping of chicks. Real chicks, it turned out, in an enclosure where the stage had been.
We were led to the backstage cafe and fed cereal, pastries and soft-boiled eggs, before changing and stumbling out of the building, half-asleep in the empty City at 7.30am on a Sunday morning.
It was captivating. It was disturbing; accessing, to some degree at least, our earliest memories of comfort and warmth and domesticity, and the eeriness that can’t help but lurk at the edges, when we were very young and everything was strange. It was also like being slowly bludgeoned to sleep with a pillow. As I said above, Lullaby was less of a show than it was a spell. I think I couldn’t sleep because some part of me wanted to resist it. One of the Barbican attendants put it best: “Some shows are meant to be unsettling. But this one is designed to be… settling.” And that, somehow, is unsettling in itself. Perhaps this was the point.
But was it art? Well, next time Duckie put on something (and they’re always putting on something), why don’t you go and find out?