Silence in the library, please. No eating, no loud noises and, god forbid, no talking. I venture into the one library in Oxford not frequented by students – Oxford Central Library. It has a character all of its own – none of the rustling parchment and quiet keyboard tapping of academic reading, but instead the hustle and bustle of a public library. And as I took my seat I was advised by the kindly librarian of the strong body odour of a nearby reader, suggesting that I may want to move the table safely out of smell’s way. Somewhat nervously, I placed some headphones over my ears and the iPod track began to play.
The Quiet Volume is a performance for two. It’s intimate, it’s exposing, and it’s almost unnervingly fascinating. Sitting side-by-side, you listen to a tape synchronised with your partner’s and follow the instructions of disembodied whispers as library life unfolds.
The tape acts as the narrator to the spectacle, guiding you into narrative and out again, stripping down the very process of reading by drawing on extracts of four books placed in front of you. You are prompted, perhaps against your will, perhaps not, to perceive library life as an outsider: to attend to the slightest tap of a finger, a shuffling of papers, the slight dry cough of the man to the right of you.
The extracts themselves and the complimentary vocal script don’t so much as follow a set plotline as they do allude to similar themes and events. That photograph of a Dresden-esque town, the elderly woman’s voice whispers, ‘could easily be the home of the blind and death boys you encountered before,’the ones who ‘see things ever since the bombings’.
A sinister vein runs throughout the script, the constant hopping between fiction and real observation urging you to apply the narrated scenes, and in particular, the idea of sense and senses, to life in the library. And all the while this is happening, we are encouraged to hear and to take note of the cacophony of voices present in the room: from the narrator’s voice, to the librarian’s steady murmur, to our own inner reading voice, to an awareness that everyone in the room has their own reading voice.
This is an interesting piece of experimental drama, but one intended for mass consumption – no student pretension here. It is the case that you really have to invest yourself in this performance, and be willing to look slightly bizarre to those around you. You’re likely to walk out of the library simply thinking ‘what the hell was that?’, maybe in a good way, or maybe not. If you’re looking for a novel way to spend an hour in a library without getting any work done, you could do worse than this.