|My Recollections of Before I Sleep,
Spoiler alert: Do not read this if you plan to go see this wonderful
The site-specific installation is inspired by
Chekhovs The Cherry Orchard and set in the abandoned and somewhat
derelict Co-Op department store in Brighton. It was a life-changing and
inspirational production for me, as was their Dont Look Back, and I had
to quickly return to my guesthouse to write down what I could remember of the
experience before it faded from memory. What follows is my own 2,400+ word
account of what took place. I have written this mainly for my own benefit, so
that I dont forget any of the experience. Please read it if youre
interested; go see it if you can get a ticket.
- A real cherry tree stands outside the entrance, which is the delivery dock
at the back of the now-abandoned department store. We are asked to wait, given
health and safety instructions to read, and told that there is a program to
collect at the end of our hour-long journey.
- We are escorted downstairs. Our guide knocks on a door, which is answered
by a dishevelled old man in a nightshirt (this is Firs, the elderly manservant
from The Cherry Orchard, who has been locked away in the mansion and forgotten
by his former employers at the end of the play). He holds a flickering lantern
and is gabbling in Russian (or some Eastern European language). He draws us
into the darkened room and retreats into the corner, still ranting in Russian.
He curls up on his tiny bed. There is a crucifix on a shelf and a few other
personal items. Suddenly, a fluorescent light is flicked on and we discover
that two walls of the room are glass panels, behind which are shelves of frozen
food (Russian labelled). It is clearly a modern supermarket and two female
shoppers, pushing trolleys, seem outraged by our presence and are exclaiming,
in Russian, from behind the glass. A supermarket employee appears (is that
Millennium badge on his uniform?), slides open the glass door and hurries us
into the corridor indicating that we must leave, immediately, through the exit
ahead. We leave, followed by the gesticulating shop assistant.
- The next room is a dark, bleak snow scene with a path down the middle. The
wind howls. To the right on the path is a miniature scene with a model mansion
in the centre, surrounded by snow-dusted pine trees in front and a miniature
cherry orchard behind. The house is lit from within. To the left of the path is
a tiny supermarket, Russian logo, red tinted windows lit from within. Looking
closely, we can see a tiny figure in servants uniform collapsed in the
snow, lantern just beyond his reach. Tiny footprints show his unsteady route
from our path, through the snow, and up to his unconscious body. We notice that
this room, as with all of the following, has a false ceiling, with holes for
pin-lights and speakers, though which haunting music is played.
- A room with pieces of old furniture. A bookcase stands in the corner, dark,
a hundred years old. French windows at the far end reveal a pleasant garden
scene. A couple in early 20th century dress are having tea, seated on white
iron chairs at a white iron table. They converse and stir tea. The man jokingly
mimics a billiard shot on the table. The woman stands and sniffs at the blossom
on the surrounding trees. Suddenly, the couple becomes aware of us watching,
and they approach the window and peer back at us in horror. The light fades to
- The next room is swathed in crimson fabric, like a grand ballroom. At the
far end is a set of French doors. On the panes of the right hand door is
projected video images I cant remember what they were. The two-way
mirrors on the other door are slowly illuminated to reveal a ghostly man in an
old-style diving suit, gasping and floating closer to us, arm outstretched. He
gets close enough for us to see his moustached mouth calling out. He then
retreats and the light dims.
- Set into the wall along a corridor is an aquarium. There is a miniature
dancing couple inside the same as from the garden scene, but they are
wearing diving helmets. The water filter bubbles away.
- A childs nursery (Act I setting of The Cherry Orchard). There is a
music box on the floor with a dancing couple revolving. The music it plays
echoes exactly the theme that is being endlessly played throughout the
installation. There is a dolls house that shows scenes we have already
witnessed, including the room we are standing in. There is a bed with
childrens toys, teddy bears, etc. strewn on the floor.
- A long table is covered with white candles, all burned out, with wax having
dripped down their sides and onto the table. It almost looks like a forest of
candles, and we notice at the far end, there is a miniature couple sitting and
drinking tea at a miniature white iron table among the candles. Further along,
a miniature manservant approaches the couple with a cup of tea.
- The next room makes me gasp. It is a huge floorspace covered with snow. The
path circles the room (perhaps the original path in the department store) and
is illuminated by lanterns that sit along its edge. Howling wind can be heard
through speakers. There is a column in the middle of the space, covered with a
grid of window panels. We see a doorway, but it is blocked.
- Moving around the path, the other side of the column. The grids of the
original Co-Op windows have been carefully made to look like a dolls
house high-rise apartment block/office space. Hundreds of little windows reveal
identical bedrooms with tiny white beds and minimally furnished. The bottom
floors are shop front windows with photos of trees, servants, and other scenes
we have encountered on our journey thus far. We see a miniature couple in
Edwardian dress having tea. One entire floor of the dolls house high-rise
is filled with miniature cheery trees. A guide dressed in black stands silently
next to a door which we enter.
- Up the stairs, we hear voices, modern voices, coming from the room above.
At first I am annoyed and think its audience members or a production team
break room. We open the door and are completely shocked by what we see.
- A department store. Modern, filled with light, noise, bustle, shoppers, and
salespeople, but nevertheless eerily depressing. Signs of desperation are
everywhere sagging signage, salespeople trying too hard to make a sale,
rubble in the corner, and all the while, the haunting minor key music of the
production is piped loudly through the store speakers. We are greeted, in
Italian, by the floor manager, who explains that this is the big closing down
sale and we may bid on any item we see in the store. He indicates various areas
that we may explore. (We spent at least half an hour in this space).
In the womens clothing area, an audience member is trying on a dark green
taffeta ballgown and squealing with delight as her boyfriend takes her photo
with his mobile phone. In the mens clothing area, a shop assistant,
speaking Italian, encourages us to try on jackets for size. She compliments the
quality of the customers jacket and says that it must be from last
years Millennium clothing line.
In the furniture section, salesmen speak in another language Russian?
and try desperately to shift shelving, chairs, bookcases, etc. One
wooden table is covered with square, white candles, unlit, and reminiscent of
the burnt ones we saw earlier. We see a video of a Japanese woman selling
property space; we cant decide if it is live footage or taped. Suddenly,
I hear my name being called, and a woman beckons me into a small room where the
Japanese woman from the video indicates that we should sit down on the
white iron chairs at the white iron table. She speaks in Japanese and enthuses
with pride about the artificial grass that surrounds us; feeling it, she
remarks about how realistic it feels. She picks up a remote control
and the light shifts to afternoon; a bird sound comes from speakers and she
enthusiastically shows us a photo from a well-thumbed guidebook of what the
real bid would look like. It is a blackbird. Remote control again
makes the atmosphere seem like dusk and we hear a recorded skylark, again with
guidebook photo. Next, darkness and an owl. We are being encouraged to buy
space in a high-rise, futuristic property. It all feels very creepy.
Outside the room, a hidden curtain reveals a darkened store room filled with
mannequins, most stripped of clothing. A furtive shopkeeper lurks behind them,
muttering frantically in Russian. In the back of the store, a
German architect frets over plans and tries to assure us that, despite the
rubble and snaked cabling lying on the ground, that the foundation of the
property is safe and we have nothing to worry about. There is a childrens
section with a giant walk-in dolls house that opens to reveal another,
smaller doll house inside. That doll house is furnished in the old style, a
version of the one we saw earlier. Bright sea creature mural is on the wall
behind the doll house and, in the lower left hand corner, we see a painting of
two figures drinking tea at an iron table; each figure is wearing a diving
In the bedding section, a French sales assistant persuades us to test the
softness of the beds. We look inside a wardrobe and discover antique wash
basin, comb, and other personal effects. This makes us double back and look
inside every drawer and cupboard for other artefacts. In one wardrobe, we
discover nightclothes, like the ones worn by the frantic old servant in the
first scene. These appear later, in the most poignant scene for me.
In the kitchen area, while a German woman is extolling the virtues of the
fixtures, we discover a hidden cupboard that leads, Narnia-like, into a secret
passageway. At one end of the passageway is a video of an autumnal scene with
several menservants walking through the woods, lost, each carrying cups of tea.
At the other end of the passageway is another two-way mirror, behind which we
see a life-sized version of the Russian supermarket in the snow from earlier.
Soon, a lone servant a real person this time trudges through the
snow, carrying his cup of tea. When he discovers the supermarket (instead of
his masters mansion), he cries in anguish and shakes his fist at the
heavens, before lowering his cup to the ground and collapsing beside it. The
light fades to black.
We exit the passageway through another cupboard door, back into the department
store selling floor. There, we notice the ancient figure of the servant making
his way, befuddled, through the stores bedding department. Wearily, he
sits on a bed and pulls off his boots, and then he changes into the nightshirt
that hangs in the wardrobe. He attempts to crawl into bed, but two of the
French shop assistants prevent him from staying and they help him back to
standing and send him on his way. This was almost too sad for me to watch!
At the customer service desk, the only English speaking assistant explains to
us how we can bid online for any item in the store once we get home. Throughout
out stay in this doomed department store, there were temporary power
failures, when all the lights and music briefly dimmed and panic ensued.
The store manager shouted calming reassurances to the customers, while calling
to Angelica! to sort things out. We exit this area with unease.
- Down some stairs. There is a large, wall-sized video showing the couple
drinking tea among trees in an autumnal forest/orchard. They stand and leave
and Firs, the servant enters from the left, with a cup of tea. He seems
confused and cannot find anyone to serve. He sinks to his knees.
- A large, darkened section of the space is next. The smell of mildew fills
the air. The Japanese high-rise project is a long-forgotten dream now. Rooms
are filled with mouldering furniture and burnt-out light bulbs. A childs
crib stands in one room with a tattered stuffed animal inside. An old Co-op
bank till, with three windows reveals rubbish and decay. One room is filled
with computer screens in a U-shape, all showing the old video of the Japanese
woman trying to sell units.
- In one large space, sections of old tiles can be seen in panels on the
wall. This was clearly once a very grand building. In a far corner, a diorama
is set into the wall. Looking in, we can see a miniature couple drinking tea,
surrounded by decaying leaves. A miniature servant approaches them with his
eternal cup of tea.
- Another large video of the servant, Firs, struggling through the forest
with his cup of tea. This time, after he collapses, the camera pans up through
the trees and into the sky. We can see that the forest is now in the middle of
an island, completely surrounded by water with no other land to be seen.
- The floor slopes gently upwards on a purpose-build ramp that forms a
Japanese-style bridge over an underwater city scene. Its a futuristic
world with streetlights and buildings. Once again, we see the tea-drinking
couple in diving gear.
- Around a dark corner we discover an arresting image: a real cherry tree and
real grass, crammed into a small, black space. Are those birds chirping?
- Almost at the end now, we walk through a dimly lit space that is just as
large as the department store area was. It is completely filled with the
decapitated trunks of cherry trees. The ground is covered with bark and fallen,
dead leaves. There is distant birdsong. Very sad.
- Just when we thought the installation was over, we walked out of the
building to the street and discovered that the old Co-op storefront windows
have been designed to give teasing glimpses of the production we just saw. Each
window is filled with designer wear including scuba gear-clad
mannequins sitting at tea tables. Other figures are dressed in designs from the
department store scene, and the backdrops are photographic images of forests
with bleary-eyed servants peering from behind trees and holding cups of tea. At
the bottom of one display window was a tiny, tiny figure of a servant with his
own cup of tea.