Last week we donned our goggles and dusted off our beach towels ready to go on an aquatic adventure from the comfort of our own bathrooms, with Silvia Mercuriali as our (rather alluring) guide. Was it a triumphant voyage or maritime madness? Only one way to find out…
Warning: This review contains some wildly flattering images of our writers. You may fall in love.
I’ve done a lot of odd things in lockdown. I’ve watched Come Dine With Me on Netflix Party with friends in place of hungover trash tv Sundays. I’ve sat in my kitchen cheering and singing along (and hitting the ‘like’ button manically) while watching a Facebook open mic night. I ‘walk’ to work every morning, looping a 20 minute circular route back to my kitchen that is, ironically, actually longer than my old journey to the office. All of these attempts to replicate the pre-lockdown world contain a hint of the unhinged, but on Wednesday night when I found myself staring at myself in the bathroom, fully decked out in a swimming cap, goggles, costume and towel, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps I had finally cracked.
In my defence, I was kitted out like this upon strict instruction, having received a lengthy preparation email along with my ticket for Swimming Home. I had details not just on how to dress, but also on technology set-up (“make sure your device is charged”: always a good tip) and even on how to reuse the bath water after the show. So while I had most definitely been prepared about what to expect, the moment of realising that I was indeed, about to go swimming in my own bathroom was still an odd one. I’m just glad I don’t live in a student house anymore.
Honestly, I’m aware that the more I write about what took place, probably the weirder it sounds. The show’s creator, Silvia Mercuriali, describes the piece as “a poetic space where the taps are waterfalls and the bath a primordial broth from which anything can emerge”, which doesn’t exactly go a long way to bringing some clarity to the situation. I think the phrase ‘poetic space’ certainly felt like the right description for the atmosphere created, and there were moments that felt really effective in doing so. The piece’s beginning started off strongly, with the personified voice of ‘water’ herself emerging out of the taps as you turned them on. We then heard a soundscape of people’s early memories of swimming, and while they weren’t anything out of the ordinary, I think that’s exactly what worked. The stories really did conjure up early memories of swimming pools as a kid, and in my socialising-starved state, the chance to take my mind out of my flat and into a public pool (even one where “they don’t check for verrucas anymore” as one of the soundscape voices pondered) was welcome.
Once we moved from the starter to the ‘primordial broth’ however (to outrageously overextend Mercuriali’s metaphor) I was starting to glance around to see what other people had ordered. As the piece progressed, the instructions became more frequent and even more complicated. Ms ‘Water’, who had started as an ethereal poet-like figure in my ear was suddenly feeling much more domineering. “Turn to face the tap with your left hand over the water”. “Hold your phone in your right hand above your head, lowering your left ear to the water, being careful not to get your headphones wet”. Spin three times uttering, ‘there’s no place like home’ before performing a backwards dive into the plug hole, being mindful of your headphones, of course. Ok, I made the last one up, but the number of instructions certainly took me out of the ‘poetic space’ that had been so carefully created earlier, which was a shame. I think overall, it would have been simpler to scrap the headphones completely and just listen to the piece out loud. Yes, it was nice to feel like you were shutting out the outside world, and there were moments of real beauty when that did happen, but I think not having to worry about the risk of electrocution probably trumps the use of some binaural effects any day.
There I stand – in a swimming costume I was gifted a year and a half ago and haven’t had a chance to wear yet, in borrowed blue goggles with a beach towel around my shoulders (which has been mocking me from the airing cupboard since the first lockdown began). I’m frantically texting the group chat, giddy and a bit delirious, as we try to one-up each other with increasingly ridiculous selfies of us in our swimming gear – walking the line between excitement and a burning need to concentrate on something other than our own self-awareness – as we embark upon this odd, not-quite-solo adventure.
There’s something about being a part of something ‘bigger’ than ourselves that leads to an oozing of excitement and anticipation: think of watching the election results come in, or the oscar winner announcements, knowing that there are other people glued to their telly at the exact same time as you. Swimming Home felt a little like that at first, and it was a joy to be experiencing a show alone in my house, with the knowledge that three of my closest friends (as well as countless strangers) were doing the exact same thing. A weird thing to be united through, sure, but thanks to the pandemic I’ll take pretty much any shared experience I can get…
The first ten minutes of Swimming Home are genius; and I’m engrossed. The team uses binaural sound to immerse you in the soundscape of (what feels like) your local leisure centre as you walk from reception, to the changing rooms, to the pool. We hear verbatim stories from frequent public pool users – about ordinary pool experiences – and suddenly I’m flooded with memories that I hadn’t dusted off in a very long time. I remember my first swimming classes, the slide that was always out of use at the pool my Mum took me to when I was 7, her teaching me to do a flip in the water – it’s actually quite emotional. At points, an (almost too) soothing, feminine voice feels like it’s coming from inside your own head, and at another point convinces you that they are whooshing around the pipes in your bathroom and eventually coming hurtling out of the tap – it’s compelling, and a testament to some incredible, wildly innovative sound work.
To my disappointment, my connection to the piece was challenged as soon as I was instructed to take my phone and headphones to my (already full) bath; and was gradually severed with every new instruction, each more complicated than the last. Eventually I realised I was so overwhelmed with whether I was following the instruction correctly – plus the inability to ditch the all-encompassing urge to throw my phone violently into the tub, or dunk myself under (electricals and all) – that I had completely missed the last 2 minutes of story-line. From then on, I wasn’t embarking on an epic seafaring adventure or reliving the public pool memories of my childhood – I was just a young woman floating weirdly in the bath, wondering why so many stray, detached hairs were floating in the water with me, and thinking ‘I should really scrub that bit of grout’. And really, I can think like that in my own time.
After drying off, I’m left wishing I’d rebelled against the advised instructions and listened purely through a good quality portable speaker. Some of the effects of the binaural sound may have been lost, sure, but the use of headphones left me downhearted, mourning what mesmerising, transportative escapade I missed out on due to being shackled to electrical equipment. Though, if there’s one major take away from this show, it’s that now when I go to my bathroom, I can’t help but imagine a sentient water being whooshing around the pipes as I pee – which I consider a win.
I have often told friends that I can swim better than I can walk. Growing up in a small town, seldom would you find a more exciting activity. The echoing chamber of cloying chlorinated air, with the glistening water that beckons you in, remains each time a transformative experience for me. “Meditation and water are wedded forever”- words from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick echo in my mind as I sit on the side of my bath, headphones firmly pressed in ears, awaiting Silvia Mercuriali’s autoteatro show Swimiming Home. A little nervous, a lot excited and after taking some rather unflattering photos of myself in my new goggles, I was ready to swim again.
I have a terrible habit of walking into shows without doing any research. I want to be surprised, and too often I’ve been on a website and had a performance spoiled by my curiosity. In retrospect, this was not a good idea with Swimming Home. Should it have been more apparent to me that it was the intention of the creator(s) to confuse and distort the audience in the hopes they lose track of time and space – leaving only a moment to reconsider their relationship with water and their environment – perhaps I would have been more receptive to it. But as it stands, my post-show thoughts mostly remain on the edge of bewilderment (to the point of being uncomfortable). I so wanted to listen and take in the colloquial musings of people’s experiences with swimming, but I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I wasn’t performing the actions correctly. A sultry voice requested I sit on the edge of the bath facing the taps; are my feet in or out of the bath? This same voice suggested we put our fists to our eyes (binocular style) I found myself embarrassed when I had my fists pressed firmly against my face like a sobbing child – and so on.
The moments of complete immersion (no pun intended) for me were those where the instructions were unequivocal. “Turn the tap on” – the words from a tiny, strained voice rang in my head. As the water swilled in my sinks basin, it thanked me for allowing it into the room. Eerie, I thought, but effective! Along with the use of a shampoo cap acting as a boat in your personal sea, there were moments of clarity that allowed for the sort of visualizations that perhaps the creator was hoping for. However, the real issue I saw with this experience was the restriction caused by the constant worry of one’s phone and headphones. Along with the continual reminder to “make sure devices remain dry”, the headphone cord acted as a leash tying me to my physical self and my bathroom. In this way, perhaps the auto teatro medium is not best suited to swimming, or a bathroom at all and in retrospect, a speaker would’ve been far less dangerous and fiddly.
One of the more unexpected outcomes was how the event lingered long after my tub was dry. In much the same way as when you really swim, the process of returning to your day takes a while. Peeling the swimming costume off, never quite towelling yourself enough before quickly pulling your clothes on and contemplating spending a millennia drying your hair with the tiny hair dryers, it certainly reminded me of how much I missed it all. If I am certain of one thing about Swimming Home it is that in one way or another, you’ll reflect on the happiest moments you’ve spent splashing and how fun it will be when we all can again.
You can purchase tickets to Swimming Home directly through Silvia Mercuriali’s website, here. There are multiple show-times a week, and the show is due to run until Wednesday 31st March, 2021.