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My Recollections of Before I Sleep, by dreamthinkspeak

Spoiler alert: Do not read this if you plan to go see this wonderful installation!

The site-specific installation is inspired by Chekhov’s 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 Don’t 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 don’t forget any of the experience. Please read it if you’re interested; go see it if you can get a ticket.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 servant’s 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.

  4. 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 black.

  5. 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 can’t 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.

  6. 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.

  7. A child’s 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 doll’s house that shows scenes we have already witnessed, including the room we are standing in. There is a bed with children’s toys, teddy bears, etc. strewn on the floor.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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 doll’s 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 doll’s house high-rise is filled with miniature cheery trees. A guide dressed in black stands silently next to a door which we enter.

  11. Up the stairs, we hear voices, modern voices, coming from the room above. At first I am annoyed and think it’s audience members or a production team break room. We open the door and are completely shocked by what we see.

  12. 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 women’s 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 men’s clothing area, a shop assistant, speaking Italian, encourages us to try on jackets for size. She compliments the quality of the customer’s jacket and says that it must be from “last year’s 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 can’t 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 children’s section with a giant walk-in doll’s 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 helmet.

    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 master’s 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 store’s 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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 child’s 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. The floor slopes gently upwards on a purpose-build ramp that forms a Japanese-style bridge over an underwater city scene. It’s a futuristic world with streetlights and buildings. Once again, we see the tea-drinking couple in diving gear.

  18. 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?

  19. 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.

  20. 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.
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