It felt empty when the heart went at first but it is alright now is a sprawling title for an incredibly well-crafted play about sex trafficking, showing in the Pilch Studio this week. Despite my initial reservations about a student production dealing with such heavy subject matter, the quality of performance, combined with the tightness of the script, makes It Felt Empty a play which is difficult to describe without resorting to superlatives.
The play, which has a cast of just two actors, tells the tragic story of Dijana (Natalie Lauren), a young woman comes to Britain and is forced into prostitution by her invisible ‘boyfriend’ Babac. The audience meanders through a nonlinear plot, directed by Dijana’s confused monologues, witnessing her abuse, her time in Babac’s house, and her imprisonment in a detention centre with Gloria (Shannon Hayes). The extent of Dijana’s mental illness (she seems to have symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) becomes evident as the play unfolds, with her narrative providing inconsistencies in place, time, and reality.
What struck me most about this play was its ability to demand attention without sensationalising the subject matter. It deftly avoids the dangers of portraying heavy themes too flippantly, or else indulging in gruesome detail for gratification. It Felt Empty is able to do this because it is about so much more than just victimhood. Gloria’s gallows humour is testament to her resilience and generosity, and Dijana’s comment that it is ‘so weird that you can live in the same place as someone and not know what they do’ is simultaneously a comment on her own life and on the isolating state of modern society.
The staging of the play will be ambitious. I asked director Lauren Jackson how she planned to stage a play in which so much of the action takes place inside one character’s head; she tells me that it will be in promenade, allowing the audience even more access to Dijana’s mind as we are placed within the liminal space of the play. I imagine this will heighten the disorientation which we feel as we watch Dijana’s constantly fluctuating mood and timeline.
I come, at last, to what promises to be the real highlight of this production – the cast. The main challenge with putting on a play like It Felt Empty, which is mostly made up of a monologue by one character, is finding an actor capable of doing it justice. Luckily, the casting is perfect. Natalie Lauren’s performance as Dijana is breath-taking; I had goose bumps as I watched her transform a brightly lit room in Teddy Hall into a stormy emotional landscape. Lauren captures the visceral details of the psychosis episodes, as well as the Croatian accent, with gritty brilliance. The peaks and falls of emotion and energy keep the audience captivated by her long, wandering speeches. Shannon Hayes as Gloria is also a delight to watch—she has perfected a balancing act which leaves us unable to judge Gloria’s character, as her displays of warmth towards Dijana are broken by violent shouting, and dark stories of severed tongues.
Although it deals with horrific social issues, It Felt Empty does not preach at the audience. It is, first and foremost, a highly personal story, which allows us to connect with a woman who might otherwise become a statistic to us. It Felt Empty could be one of the most important things you see this term.