"all stories are true, and some of them actually happened"
- italian proverb
- italian proverb
I happen to love the sound of doorbells. That's why I chose that sound for my text message alert on my phone. Every time I get a text, it's like there's someone at my door.
You never know who that someone is. It might be someone selling something, a neighbour asking to borrow an egg or for you to turn your music down, a friend who's come by to surprise you. Whoever they are, every one of those people has a story to tell. Inside all everyday interactions there is something else, something deeper.
I have always been fascinated by the details in the everyday. When I see interesting looking people on the street, in cars that pass me, in restaurants, on the tube, I wonder about them. Who are they? What do they do? What do they believe? What secrets do they have? What might have happened to them yesterday, last year, or age three, to make them who they are now?
Everyone and everything has a story, I believe. I've written many stories and poems about this, attempting to peel back the layers.
Andrew Losowsky did this with a series of photographs he took in Florence in 2003 of various doorbells he found dotted throughout the city. For each photograph, he wrote a short story, detailing the lives of the imagined residents. He self-published this collection of stories a few years later, and it is now being brought out in hardback by Chronicle Books in June.
Now this series of short stories has been adapted for the theatre. The Doorbells of Florence debuted this week at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in London, a dark and intimate space just perfect for telling tales. Tales of secrets, chance encounters, debt collection, undelivered parcels and burglary (among many other things!).
The stories themselves are exquisite, and I could have quite happily listened to them all night (and now want to get the book!). The cadences and rhythms of the language were mesmerising, made all the more so by the physical animation of the performers, Samuel Collings and Jennifer Jackson. Director Tom Wright has created a somewhat mystic playworld for these two unnamed characters who narrate the stories. Wright said that in producing Doorbells he wanted to "put a bit of wonder back into an increasingly bleak world", and I think this is exactly what has been achieved. It's a strange sensation when you get caught up in this little world where doorbells aren't just doorbells - they are portals to loss, failure, love, surprise -which strike chords in us all.
The duo operate hypnotically in the space, with their opening scenes reminiscent of Chaplin's silent films - their gestures exaggerated, comic and loaded with meaning. Eventually, the characters discover the slide projector, holding the photos of the doorbells that inspired each story, and so the show begins. Each story is punctuated by a physical gesture by the performers - a dive, a sidestep, a start as though the floorboard had live wires on it - signifying a beginning or an end. We do not know who they are, or what they are, but it doesn't seem important - the real characters are in the stories.
Interspersed with dancing and rich, throaty Italian music, the stories are a pleasing combination of short and long - some unravel like rolls of ribbon, others are only a sentence. A slide of an ornate lions head doorknocker, rather than an electronic bell, for example - "Luigi likes it old school," is the narrator's description, nothing more. My favourite photo was of a doorbell for several flats, with a bandaid over one of the nameplates. "No one knows what happened here," is the taut, simple truth.
Some stories were more compellingly interpreted than others, but the ones that really work do stand out with their precision of delivery, gentle humour and immediacy. You can almost smell the dust in the hidden apartment story.
The space itself is very interesting too. Liam Shea has created a set which at first appears to be stark and unadulterated, a simplicity that you assume is deliberate so as not to overwhelm and detract from the stories. But as the tales are told, one begins to recognise elements of the story that is being narrated in the physical space. Perhaps I didn't interpret it correctly, but eventually I got the sense that these two performers were under the floorboards in the dust-smothered secret flat they were describing. And by encasing the stories in this space, there is this sense of both restriction and freedom. The two performers are quite outstanding, particularly Collings, who is playful yet intense throughout.
The play is both intensely text-driven (as you would expect) but at the same time as it is a really physical piece of work - there is enough action on stage to keep your attention from wandering. The dream-like yet somewhat claustrophobic space the characters inhabit as they tell the stories is the perfect showcase for the exquisite text. It showed me that literature and theatre can happily coexist, as both are founded on the same premise - storytelling. Often when writing plays myself, I have struggled to take off my novelists cap and think of the play as a living, breathing thing that isn't designed to sit on a shelf. This performance made me rethink all that.
Storytelling, in whatever form, will work if it is seductive enough. And as challenging as the everyday world is, as we are drawn into the layers beneath in Doorbells we know that it is safe, for both the characters and for us. The final story, where all the threads are pulled together and we finally learn the origins of the two euro coin (a motif dotted througout the stories), reminded me why I love literature, and why I go to see theatre: I enter a space where the world no longer makes sense, but it doesn't frighten me. And I emerge from it with a different perspective.
Even stories have stories, I discovered last night. I don't know if I'll ever look at doorbells quite the same way again!
If you're in London and like theatre, do go and see it - I hope you'll come away as inspired as I was. And to sweeten the deal, there's a pub downstairs, with plants on the window sills, that does killer chips.
See the show:
The Doorbells Of Florence
Until Sat May 30
Rosemary Branch Theatre, 2 Shepperton Rd, N1 3DT
7.30pm, tickets £10
Website for the show: http://losowsky.com/doorbells/play/
Buy the book:
The Doorbells of Florence by Andrew Losowsky at amazon.co.uk
Andrew Losowsky's Amazon blog is also worth a read too - the story about self publishing is very inspiring!