Written by Dani Abulhawa
Quarantine’s The Reading Room – performed in the stunning Wolfson Reading Room at Manchester’s Central Library on 14th Nov 2014 – was a delightful event and a performance that connected on different levels with the site and the people in attendance.
If you’ve never been to the Wolfson Reading room I really recommend it. It’s in the core of the circular library building, and the enormously high ceiling has a glass dome in the centre with golden lettering surrounding it that reads, ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting; get understanding’.
The room has a particularly interesting acoustic quality. It seems to amplify and deepen tiny sounds, sending them scattering across the space, such that miniscule movements become like the sound of thunder on the other side of the room.
In the room are 28 large desks, each with a central strip of lamps that produces a focused, strong beam ideal for reading by. A performer was sat at each of these desks, with several sheets of plain paper and a schedule of the events that would happen throughout the performance. Audience members were invited to sit at any of the desks and could move desks at any time.
As people swarmed into the room at the beginning of the performance there was a period in which people were deciding where to sit and scoping out the different performers. A map of the space had been provided, which detailed who was sat at each desk and a text that they would be reading. Slowly, this chaos settled down, as people committed, for now, to a particular performer and desk.
The first part of the piece involved the performers trying to memorise all the books they had read and to write down what they could remember on sheets of paper, which were littered across their table for audience to read. It was enjoyable to glimpse into the literary history of the performers and to see what they thought about books that I had also read.
The next part of the performance involved the performers asking questions of the audience members who had sat down with them. It was fascinating to hear other people’s answers to these questions: ‘do you ever read to someone else?’ ‘Have you ever thrown a book across a room?’ ‘Where do you read?’ ‘What was the first book you ever read?’ ‘Do you ever read out loud?’
The last two parts of the performance involved the performer reading a text that was important to them, and finally the performers read the same text, in unison, whilst they remained at their own desk.
I liked the way that the performance responded to this unusual space – each performer at a glowing desk appeared like a little galaxy and we were invited to orbit and settle. I wasn’t much in the mood to be static (am I ever?) so I found myself orbiting a lot, and looking in on these galaxies. Some of only two people, heads together, deep in conversation that I didn’t want to interrupt; some groups of eight or more, chipping in to a conversation about a book or an experience of reading.
I loved the way the performance created spaces for discussion between strangers, and spaces for thinking about your own experiences of reading. I also liked the way the performance responded to the idea of a ‘reading’ room; Incorporating the activities of reading quietly, reading out loud, and of reading into people’s comments and thoughts.
The performance seemed to suggest that our bodies are vessels containing all the books we have ever read, and that we are filled with experiences and knowledge. The Reading Room was a moment of telling tales to each other, conveying anecdotes and the passing on of bodies of wisdom.
Image credit: Kate Daley