It Felt Empty When The Heart Went At First But It Is Alright Now @ Arcola Theatre, London

cast list
Hara Yannas, Madeline Appiah

directed by
Lucy Morrison
Lucy Kirkwoods new play is a fine piece of writing, one capable of creating a hard, hot ball of anger in ones stomach.

Most people are aware of the vile reality of sex trafficking, of young women from overseas bought and sold, imprisoned with no means of escape, their bodies reduced to a package of holes and fluids to be used and then discarded when theyve served their purpose.

Kirkwoods play, commissioned and produced by Clean Break, journeys into this world. But, instead of showering its audience with harrowing statistics or indulging in redundant hand-wringing, it provides a warm and plausible guide – a way in, a window, a voice – in Dijana, a bright, optimistic, full-hearted young woman with, as she proudly informs us, “a good head for figures.”
She knows exactly how much shes worth because shes been keeping count, noting down each transaction and each amount earned, so she can buy back her passport from her pimp Babac and, with it, her freedom. We first meet Dijana in her bleak Dalston bedroom as she prepares to meet the man she hopes will be her last ever client. Despite her skinny limbs and raw-thighed totter, she claims there is little difference between her and a high-class sex worker like Billy Piper in ITVs Diary of a Call Girl, the overtly glossy, soft focus adaptation of the books (and blog) by Belle du Jour.

Her self-delusion is both blatant and necessary, a cushion against the utter desperation of the truth. We see her counting out the used condoms in her dustbin, a series of limp white, jellyfish remnants, and being pounded, repeatedly and aggressively, by an invisible punter. Even as she is subjected to this degradation, she retains a degree of humanity and hope; she is not totally broken, not yet.

Dijana tells her story to an unseen child, her baby, her little clown, assuring her they will be reunited one day and they will eat chips together on Brighton beach. It is a testament to the open and assured performance by Hara Yannas that this approach never feels too heavy-handed or mawkish. Yannas somehow conveys Dijanas intense vulnerability along with some inner strength of spirit that is only finally threatened when she ends up at a detention centre, thrown together with other women, removed from one hellish place only to find herself in another.

The Arcolas chilly and cavernous Studio K has been divided into a number of spaces through which we follow Dijana on her nightmarish journey through a rabbit hole world. She clambers through vents and doorways leading the audience through rooms of glaring neon, shiny plastic wrap, twisted wire and seedy seafront shimmer. The narrative is broken up into three main scenes in which the audience perch on benches or plastic stools, sometimes sat uncomfortably close to the performers. The first scene takes place in Dijanas stark bedroom, the second in the detention centre, a dreamlike stretch of corridor with a chequerboard floor, and the last takes place in a room padded with plastic, cluttered with white goods and lit by a chemical sun. This final scene is set some time before the other two, at a point when Dijana was still convinced her future had some good in it.

Blending elements of promenade theatre with more conventional dramatic monologue, Lucy Morrisons production manages to be disturbing without hammering its audience over the head with the grimness of Dijanas situation (not until the end at least). There is humour here and startling flashes of imagination, even if Kirkwood has to hop through a few hoops to make the plays internal world hold up.

Chloe Lamford’s design uses every corner of the space creatively and intelligently and, despite the sometimes bittiness of the interludes between scenes (which actually provide a welcome breathing space), the piece works as a whole – its cohesive and fluid.

Though the monologue form sometimes trembles under the weight of whats required of it (and the play becomes an altogether tenser thing when a second character is introduced), Yannas performance and Morrisons staging combine to turn this into a powerful, genuinely distressing, physically unsettling and yet also inventive theatrical experience that shines a torch beam into the corners most people would rather not look.

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