Ava Wong Davies on why we find domesticity on stage so appealing, ahead of the opening of Middle at the National Theatre
We all know the set-up. An estranged family reunite for the first time in for ever in the family home. Perhaps there's going to be some sort of party, or a storm has forced everyone inside, or someone is returning home after a long time away. In any case, the home acts as a kind of pressure cooker: a place where recriminations come to light and old scars reopen.
And no, I’m not talking about your Sunday lunch with your extended family. Home life (or domesticity), while seemingly mundane, is actually the fodder for much of entertainment – whether theatre, TV or film. But what is it about ‘normal’ life (i.e. seeing people in their kitchens or living rooms) that continues to capture audience’s imaginations?
Often, depicting the domestic on stage comes with a natural pressure cooker element that many of us can understand. A family event like a birthday, wedding, Christmas, Sunday lunch or even a funeral makes for a familiar, if heightened backdrop to the drama. Natasha Gordon’s Nine Night fits this form perfectly, using the Jamaican funeral tradition to bring a family together over the course of an extended wake which takes place over nine nights, and seeing where those natural straining points might come. Gordon uses that central metaphor of grief to spin out a wide-ranging but still intimate story of family tragedy.
Some of the fascination with domesticity surely comes down to an inherent curiosity (or nosiness) on the part of the audience. Who among us has not peered at a colleague or friend’s background on Zoom, trying to make out the books on their shelves or the state of their houseplants? Our homes are a natural extension of ourselves and how we present ourselves to others, how we carve out space and establish personality. But the home is also a deeply personal space – cupboards contain embarrassing outfits or long-since abandoned hobbies, hidden away from public gaze. This clash between the public and private makes them perfect settings for dramas and comedies. And of course, we make a lot of judgements of people based on their homes.
Some of the fascination with domesticity surely comes down to an inherent curiosity (or nosiness) on the part of the audience.
Beginning (National Theatre, 2018), the precursor to David Eldridge’s upcoming Middle (National Theatre, 2022), is a play about two 30 and 40-something strangers getting to know each other, peeling back each other’s layers to find the various vulnerabilities underneath, is set in the aftermath of a housewarming in a Crouch End flat. For most people, simply talking (or flirting) with a stranger might be awkward enough, but the fact that it takes place in one of the character’s homes adds another excruciating (but also exhilarating) layer to the tension.
Fly Davis’ set design was meticulous in its dedication to lived-in realism, from the detritus on the beige carpeted floor (‘I’m getting rid of the carpet,’ says Laura, the new owner) to the cheap fairy lights strung up in an approximation of festivity. Laura and Danny get to know each other through a carefully calibrated dance: there are certain aspects to their personalities that they both want to present to the other person, and yet the setting ensures that those self-conscious, flirtatious performances are quickly stripped away. Danny opens Laura’s fridge to get a beer and ends up, out of awkwardness, commenting on its sparseness, inadvertently making a comment on Laura’s living situation, and by proxy, what kind of a person she is (if you are wondering, she’s a woman who doesn’t bother doing a weekly shop for food because ‘it’s a waste of money on your own [and] you end up chucking stuff away’). It’s the unbearable intimacy of someone seeing your underwear drawer, writ large for an audience.
Seemingly irreparable conflict sits alongside the more prosaic elements of life.
The burgeoning couple are able to speak in this setting with excruciating honesty, the kind that wouldn’t happen anywhere other than late at night and a couple of bottles down. Danny admits that he lives with his nan after his divorce and rarely sees his daughter, Laura finally tells him just how lonely she feels. It’s the kind of honesty which rings clear and piercing on a semi-bare domestic space – a beautiful flat, yes, but one which is still waiting to be filled in with personality, with life and love, the kind that is hinted that Danny and Laura could, maybe, share together. After all, what is a new home if not a place for a fresh start?
Meanwhile, David Eldridge’s newest play, Middle offers a different take on the domestic. The play is a follow-up but not a sequel to Beginning, both directed by Polly Findlay. Taking place long after the honeymoon period has ended, we see the kind of banal, beautiful domesticity that exists in a long-term relationship. Maggie and Gary discuss the possibility of their marriage ending, and then the conversation flits seamlessly into one about defrosting pork. High drama in a relationship doesn’t look how you think it might – all blazing arguments and passionate contrition – instead, seemingly irreparable conflict sits alongside the more prosaic elements of life.
Plays which take place in a domestic setting often point to a truth: home isn’t just a place for doing the washing up or sleeping, they can also make for potent battlegrounds for questions about race, class, and identity – arguments which become particularly acute in spaces that are ostensibly designed for comfort and safety.
In Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic, A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer chafes at the constraints set upon her as a bourgeois wife and mother, and ultimately leaves her husband and children for a life outside the confines of the tightly defined sphere that has made up her entire life. Carrie Cracknell’s 2012 revival of A Doll’s House at the Young Vic had the Helmer family confined to Ian MacNeil’s claustrophobic apartment design, set upon a revolve which spun slowly, akin to a music box, giving the illusion of movement, which eventually revealed itself to be stasis.
After the events of the recent pandemic, where for long periods of time all many of us could do was sit at home and wait, that feeling that the home might contain, even prevent us from leaving is surely something we can all understand. Carrie Cracknell’s revival of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre, 2016) drew a portrait of a woman struggling with the societal ideals of the time. Hester Collyer (played by Helen McCrory) is a judge’s wife who begins a passionate and volatile affair with a young war hero. Tom Scutt’s spectral, porous design left Hester Collyer drenched in Guy Hoare’s blue lights. Hester cannot bring herself to leave her lover’s flat — after all, where else can she go?
Seeing the ordinary in art heightens, condenses, and satirises that sense of the everyday.
Of course, domesticity doesn’t always have to mean one’s own home — it can mean other people’s too. Who hasn’t occasionally felt tense, awkward or discomfited when staying in someone else’s home? The unfamiliar creaks of floorboards, which chairs you are allowed to sit in, finding the kettle — all these moments are rife for awkward drama. Annie Baker’s play, John (National Theatre, 2018), is set in a B&B near a Gettysburg battlefield, and is by no means a traditionally ‘domestic’ play. A young, holidaying couple are deposited in an semi-cosy (but with overtones of being semi-menacing) setting, overseen by a well-meaning, if intrusive innkeeper. Chloe Lamford’s meticulously detailed design for the National Theatre production included a mechanical piano which occasionally, spookily, began playing itself, and an entire wall with dolls perched on shelves, which stared out insipidly towards the audience. The oppressive homeliness of the setting in John is an eerily felt subversion of the domestic drama.
The idea of the home being a breathing thing, a place where ghosts linger, both from history and from past (and current) relationships is something that many playwrights have played with. Ghost stories, in particular, feel like particularly rich uses of domestic spaces on stage. Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ play, Appropriate, is set in an old Arkansas plantation house, and focuses on the white Lafayette family arguing over their inheritance. While not explicitly a ghost story, the house creaks incessantly and there are long, strange periods of emptiness on the stage which accumulate a sense of menace through silence: the history of the plantation, and the family’s slave-owning past, is inescapable. It’s an unnerving and effective twist on the way domestic drama can be used on stage.
Generally, there remains a narrowness of scope to what kinds of domesticity have been portrayed on the UK’s biggest stages (usually family units, occasionally romantic relationships but nearly always heteronormative and middle-class), attempts have been made to satirise well-worn tropes of traditional domesticity.
Laura Wade’s, Home, I’m Darling (Theatr Clwyd and National Theatre, 2018) pierces the fetishisation of supposed the 1950s as a supposed ‘better time’, particularly in the gendering of domesticity. In the play, the previously high-flying businesswoman Judy Martin loses her job and turns her attention to emulating the 1950s in every aspect of her domestic life, from the flouncy swing dresses she wears, to the deviled eggs she prepares, to total financial dependency on her husband. Anna Fleischle’s pastel-hued, dollhouse design grants Home, I’m Darling a sense of a home ever-so carefully constructed, but fundamentally unreal, and Katherine Parkinson, who originated the role of Judy, plays up a cloying anxiety which seeks to paper over the inevitable fissures in her marriage and home.
Of course, there are other, more explicit ways of pointing out the limitations of the domestic drama: the theatre company Dead Centre’s postmodern adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Platonov, wryly renamed Chekhov’s First Play, culminates in a wrecking ball smashing through the veneer of a naturalistic living room.
The point is that (perhaps mercifully) domesticity onstage and in entertainment is not real life, but seeing the ordinary in art heightens, condenses, and satirises that sense of the everyday. Putting domestic spaces onstage can cast new light on a throwaway comment or simple action, ultimately saying something profound about what it means to be human.
Middle by David Eldridge and directed by Polly Findlay, creators of ★★★★★ Beginning, plays 27 April - 18 June 2022 in our Dorfman theatre.
Photo of Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton in Beginning, by David Eldridge, by Johan Persson