Stories of women’s experience of the workhouse shape the solo performance of The House, devised and performed by Carran Waterfield, and created as part of Jenny Hughes’ AHRC-funded research project ‘Poor Theatres’ (http://blog.poortheatres.manchester.ac.uk/). The eighteenth-century Heron Corn Mill at Milnthorpe, Cumbria (http://www.heronmill.org/) provided an atmospheric setting for the piece as we sat listening to historical accounts of the ‘undeserving’ poor, delivered through a ‘poor theatre’ aesthetic (minimal production resources).
The performance opens with personal, ‘herstories’ from Waterfield’s family: stories about her grandmother, known to the family as ‘nana in hospital’ since she was institutionalised for most of her life, and about her lone mother’s struggles to provide for her children. Taking these familial steps back through systems of welfare, Waterfield opens up to histories of the workhouse and conjures up multiple, quick-changing personas from those in charge of the poor, such as the formidable master or righteous matron, to those whose lives were regulated by the conditions of the institution.
Servility, Waterfield’s performance stresses, was demanded of those who were institutionalised – they had to be obedient, thankful and uncomplaining. The hopelessness of breaking the cycle of the workhouse is exemplified in the recurrent motif of the failure of inmates to progress the ‘steps’ that might lead to more interesting, fulfilling labour. Equally, in one moment, the repetitive binding of twine around an upturned table, balanced on a swivelling chair, as Waterfield circled round and round, memorably captured the monotony of their work. Not that Waterfields’ ‘poor’ always succeed in their performance of the obedient, servile subject. There are delightful, rebellious break out moments. In one sequence, for instance, a young woman who tells us she is learning Latin begins to sing a Latin-sounding hymn increasingly and mischievously intoned with swear words. And if in one moment we find ourselves laughing at Waterfield’s rendition of the pauper choir singing for our entertainment, in another we find ourselves challenged by her direct address and eye contact that demands to know how much we have compared to those ‘who have very little, nothing at all’. ‘Dig deeper’ her ‘fun raiser’ persona asks of us.
The lives of poor workhouse women are undocumented, invisible lives, as Waterfield reminds her audience in her closing image as she sets out a row of white boxes containing official papers that she proceeds to string up, leaving them suspended as a line of lost histories. Yet, what is most compelling about The House, is not so much the way it creatively documents workhouse lives, but how it presses the point that the centuries-old discourse surrounding the ‘undeserving’ poor lies not only in the past but is very much present in today’s climate of austerity, fronted and endorsed by the Conservative government. This is a performance that deserves many more ‘houses’.