All theatre, to a greater or lesser extent, requires the audience to take a leap of imagination into the world it creates. At the Arcola, with its current production of It Felt Empty, this is being achieved to extraordinary effect.
This is due in part to the synergy between Lucy Kirkwood’s text and the remarkable performance by Hara Yannas as Dijana, the young immigrant woman whose story this is. Locked in the room where she works as a prostitute, talking to her absent child, she still maintains an optimism and humour. Sentimentality and practicality jostle with each other as she cries over a dead bird, picks 21 used condoms out of the bin and boasts that she has “a head for numbers”, recording each transaction in a notebook. She appears to have no illusions, knowing exactly how much she is worth: “1000 Euros because that is what Babac pay for me”.
Today is a special day: she believes that her next client will be her last. She will then pay off Babac - her former boyfriend, now pimp – retrieve her passport and be free to follow her dream of going to the Brighton seaside to see her child and “eat chips and swim in the sea”. But when number 22 arrives, his presence signalled only by the opening of the door, she shows, in full close-up, exactly what it is like to earn your living this way.
However, it is not just the text and lead performance that make this such a remarkable theatrical experience. The Arcola is known for its versatile performance space. Chloe Lamford, Anna Watson and Becky Smith, responsible for design, lighting and sound respectively, have cleverly created here a series of rooms representing not only each place Dijana finds herself, but also reality as it appears to her.
The first scene ends when Dijana’s longed-for seaside bursts into her room with a crash of waves and a scatter of pebbles, and she disappears in pursuit. The audience follows her and, in an echo of Alice’s descent into Wonderland, finds her crawling in a tunnel searching for her child. Models of iconic Brighton views and children’s swimsuits reveal both the strength of her longing and also the seeds of her downfall. It is after trying to steal such a swimsuit that she is arrested.
Confined in a detention centre, trembling and tearful, Dijana sinks into despair and confusion. After a moving encounter with another detainee, Gloria, played by Madeline Appiah, Lewis Carroll meets fairy tale as Dijana coughs up a golden key, unlocks a child-sized door and returns to the time just after her arrival in the UK.
In the detention centre Dijana rejects Gloria’s offered friendship, telling her, “I don’t trust you”. It is in this final room that the audience discovers why her trust has gone. Visibly pregnant and happily working the phone for her beloved Babac’s prostitution ring, she talks of a holiday that he has booked for them. He is so kind he has even taken her passport away so she will have nothing to worry about. The room is festooned with bright plastic flowers, children’s toys and clothes. But she cannot see it for the parody of happiness that it is, just as she cannot see what is really happening to her. In the end Dijanna’s story is one of a woman who trusted too much.
- Louise Gooding