We pick up our headphones at a platform and are encouraged to walk around inside a station. Are we eavesdroppers, an audience, participants? A voice tells us, 'Listen' and we do. We hear monologues: the note of panic and desperation is common to all, a tone anyone running late for a train or discovering they have left that one, vital document at home will identify with. Someone says, ‘Shouldn’t talk about it’, a phrase which seems to trigger what will follow, short arias of crisis and despair, the voices of men and women on the verge of panic and separation.
Their voices, tears and anxieties are compelling, but the piece’s strangeness is in its location. The railway station is revealed as a kind of theatrical arena, and as we look at it from between our big, black headphones, we and the passengers become mutual objects of curiosity. Our mode of walking, very different from the self-absorbed browsers of phone and newspaper, marks us out as a different kind of user of this public space – different to the workers, tiredly serving lunchtime customers at Yo Sushi! and KFC, at Costa and M & S, or the frantic commuters rushing for trains, briefcases and shopping bags swinging wildly from side to side. A couple embracing look like actors. The glass doors on the platforms look like screens behind which orange-bibbed workers are mere extras. The policeman who ambles around the expensive shops on the top floor couldn’t be real, could he? We are dawdling through the hectic commuting flurries as if in a museum. In the station’s high places, on a balcony which overlooks the suddenly vast and teeming station floor, we watch people congregate about and then rapidly disperse from the LCD timetable displays.
There is a sort of narrative thread in the monologues: accent, profession and gender are immediately evident but the piece drags us and the speakers away from such public and identifiable markers of identity. We could be in any British city, outside any British home. But we are, of course, in a train station, with its own archetypal place in the British imagination, in how we imagine the country as a place in transit. Afterwards, I remembered how trains and train stations have been so prominent a fixture in English literature over the past 150 years, featuring prominently - as modernity itself - in the Victorian novel, then giving way to a more nostalgic, escapist feeling in Philip Larkin’s kaleidoscopic The Whitsun Weddings or in Harry Potter’s entrance to another world via Platform 9-3/4. Cinema and photography love the train station separation, as do hundreds of blues and rock songs. Greenlaw’s work, however, does not leave the station, and ends with simple footsteps rather than the dry roar of the Pendolino. She closes in on the pre-story, on the flux, on the station’s potential for loss, separation and discovery, its weird instability and lack of fixity as a public space. Near the end, one character has the peculiar insight, ‘We leave ourselves, turning for home.’
John McAuliffe experienced Audio Obscura at Manchester Piccadilly station during the Manchester International Festival 2011. His new book Of All Places (Gallery) is a PBS Recommendation for Autumn 2011. He teaches poetry at the Centre for New Writing at the University of Manchester.