The flowers were scarlet poppies and they burst through the wall. In 1997, the Lecoq-trained theatre company Bouge-de-là presented Under Glass.
Its young woman protagonist lives a closed existence in a cramped bedsit, selecting each day the same clothes, in the same order; her ritualized sequence of actions structures each day predictably, protecting any her from all outside influence. Yet on one wall of her attic room is a poster of an Alpine field, studded with flowers.
An unvoiced and largely repressed fantasy of Switzerland and what this appears to represent is stirred into life when a young Swiss man, a neighbour, meets and fleetingly befriends her before leaving again, to return to his native country or travel elsewhere.
The audience recognises, as he does not, the consequences of his actions for this vulnerable woman: better perhaps that he had never come at all.
In the performance’s final moments, she is left alone, again, in the small, drab room – even more alone, because abandoned. She leans against the wall, unspeaking: the damage done seems irreparable.
Then utterly without warning, flowers push their way through the wall. The dirty, fading wallpaper becomes an Alpine meadow, and pressed against it she appear to us to lie amongst poppies: maybe sleeping; maybe dying. She will never leave her little room; she will not travel to the places she dreams about. But in this moment she is transported there, and at the same time the pure fresh air and open fields burst in here. Living flowers, poppies, pushing in through peeling paper, connect two worlds: poetically, the image layers fresh against stale; movement against stasis; death against life.
This woman will not trust someone else another time. She will retreat still further. Perhaps she will die. But as she breathes in the scent of flowers, we can believe that something has changed for her in a way worth the anguish that comes with it.
Dr Frances Babbage is convenor of the MA in Theatre & Performance at Sheffield University. Her first book was Augusto Boal (Routledge, 2004).
photo: Aurelian Koch