The night after I saw Domestic Labour: A Study in Love by Cambridge theatre company 30 Bird, I dreamed that I was holding a vacuum cleaner to my ear like a conch shell and listening for the sea…
The show begins with three women standing on the stage, each holding an upright vintage hoover in her arms. They were already standing there as I handed my ticket to the usher and walked to my seat, like statues witnessing the busy scene of the audience filling the theatre. Then the house lights darkened, the stage lights came up, and music began to play as the women started moving. The music reminded me of Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach: it was energetic, repetitive, hypnotic, and at points, as in Glass’s work, a man’s talking voice speaking fragments of sentences appeared in the music, barely discernible. The one phrase I could make out was ‘change the sheets, 1, 2, 3, 4…’ The women were in continuous, hurried movement, cleaning the stage with cloths, carrying a multitude of props onto the stage and arranging an assorted collection of hoovers in a circular display in one corner. Then the music stopped, and they all fell down.
As you will guess from the title, one of the preoccupations of the piece was domestic labour – specifically the domestic labour expected of and performed by women. The flyer for the show said that it was ‘a love story between a man and a woman, East and West, about the mundane and the monumental, the personal and the political, the dust behind the bed, and the Iranian baby boom.’ But, to me, story felt somewhat faint as a dramatic tool in comparison to the piece’s other, more vivid theatrical elements.
The show had a rich visual language created by the movements of the three women and their interactions with props – vintage hoovers, bicycles, radiators, pith helmets, fountains of dust, bombs, a television. It was a highly abstract performance that felt almost like theatrical pointillism, and a love story did eventually emerge in the piece, but it was faintly superimposed upon the work in fragments of narrative, which slowly accumulated by the end to form a picture of a relationship between an Iranian man and an English woman.
These poetic fragments were interspersed with thoughtfully choreographed vignettes depicting the women doing highly significant things which explored the themes of the piece – they cleaned, made a dust-fountain powered by a bicycle lodged in a radiator, cleaned again, acted out underground revolt culminating in setting off a bomb, and held up a television set playing the film Johnny Guitar for long, absorbing moments. But although the marketing blurb set up an expectation in me for hearing a story about love which did not feel fulfilled, the lush, provocative abstraction of the piece created a fertile space for exploring a different theme, and the way it did so was engaging, fascinating – and fulfilling in a different way.
The issue of housework and its relationship to women – and their relationships – felt like the largest theme under contemplation by the show; this felt like the subject of the show, with love, multi-nationalism in love, parental love, Iran, and politics all sub-elements filling in the aesthetic background, and branching off from this main theme. It felt as if the flyer blurb could have said the show was about ‘the dust behind the bed, and how dust falls upon love, how it symbolises the mundane and the monumental, the personal and political…’
But here I need to depart from the frame of expectations I have set up by calling this article a ‘review’ and declare a staggering, leaning, wounded perspective surrounding my experience as a watcher of the show, and as the writer of this article. I wonder if the strength of my response to the show’s depiction of domestic labour was exaggerated – and my ability to pick up the elements of a ‘love story’ minimised – because I am a woman, and I have lived through thousands of moments of irritation at the way the boring, menial, repetitive, time-consuming chores of life are pushed disproportionately onto women. A rant is rising, which I am going to choose, thoughtfully, not to suppress:
The way advertisements for cleaning products always feature women = irritant. The phrase ‘women’s work’ = irritant. The way my ex-husband’s mother told him never to help me with the housework because it was ‘my job’ = irritant. The way the other men I have been with have also not been taught the value, practice and rhythms of keeping their environment clean by their mothers and fathers = irritant. The way these men have harboured unconscious expectations for me to do more housework than them = irritant. The history of female suppression stretching back hundreds, no, thousands, of years in our society leading up to this moment of improved but incomplete re-valuation of women, and which is symbolised by the women in the cleaning advertisements = irritant. IT’S NOT FUCKING FAIR!!!!
[Long pause for breathing]
[Still breathing, head down, hands clenching each other]
These moments have accumulated like dust in my psyche…so perhaps I was watching the show through a dusty lens. Domestic Labour: A Study in Love was written by a man, Merhdad Seyf, which I didn’t realise until after the show. I didn’t know the gender of the name ‘Merhdad’, and I assumed it was written by a woman. And this made me wonder if Mehrdad also wrote the marketing blurb, and if through his eyes, the show was more about love than it was about dust.
To me, this is an interesting question, which is about the power and purpose of theatre and the way conscious and unconscious elements dance with each other in the artistic imagination.
The show’s flyer lists a historical consultant, Dr Lucy Delap, who collaborated with the piece, and her area of research is domestic labour, so it is clear that the intense statement of the dust theme – through music, props, movement, title, script – was highly conscious. But I kept wondering about the inability of the love theme to reach me through all of the dust. I wanted to hear about love; my expectations were primed for love by the flyer — I love hearing about love…but all I could hear, care about, or engage with during and after the show was the dust.
I wonder, with a fervent wish to honour Merhdad as a male artist who has made a powerful piece of theatre about the stifling of feminine power by domestic labour, whether the love theme of the piece was intended to shine more brightly out of it than it did to me. I wonder if in Merhdad’s psyche and imagination, the luminance of the love theme has a different relationship with dust, and whether Merhdad has less dust in his psyche, because he is a man. I wonder how conscious or unconscious most men are of the accumulated dust in women’s psyches around this question. It can be difficult to truly grasp the extent of psychic damage done to someone else by an experience if you haven’t experienced it yourself – however, it is extremely encouraging that men are beginning to ask, to enquire about this, to imagine, empathise, create around this issue.
It is probably my own psychic woundedness that craves full empathy, and feels suspicious about Merhdad’s ability to truly feel how I feel… But then, I am white, and Merhdad is Iranian. So, we are all on a merry-go-round of experience with different elements, different potential vulnerabilities to unconsciously embedded patterns of suppression or hurts in society, like female suppression, or racism. From this whirling vantage point, it feels easier to simply thank him for caring, for asking, for creating, and to see him, rather than as a man or Iranian, as an Artist.
And aside from those (unanswerable) questions, the show affected me very powerfully. It was Good Art. It totally absorbed me, and I enjoyed the absorption. It was deliciously poetically abstract, which allowed for questions to be thrown into the air, like the dust fountain from the bicycle, and they were important questions: How have women been affected by domestic labour? How has love between men and women been affected by it? How dusty are we all? What would love between men and women be like, if we cleaned our long, sad history of female suppression off of it? This last question is the one I wonder most deeply about…as I wrote at the beginning, the night after I saw the show, I dreamed that I was holding a vacuum cleaner up to my ear like a conch shell and listening for the sea.