Baltic Circle: The Trouble with The Quiet Volume

The students of International Performance Research (MA) write about their experiences during Baltic Circle International Theatre Festival for Feel free to comment, question and give some feedback on Melanie Jame Walsh’s review of The Quiet Volume -performance.

The Trouble with The Quiet Volume

The Quiet Volume is all about our relationship to the written word, more specifically, to books. It is an audio based work, an autoteatro, for library spaces, in which two people – sometimes strangers, sometimes lovers or friends – are paired with each other and two iPods, to experience an exploration of that deliciously elusive, portal-like nature of text, specifically English text, in a physical volume. A beautiful premise. At times exquisitely executed, but with far too many conditions for it’s Baltic Circle audiences.

You and your partner in The Quiet Volume sit side-by-side in the reading room of the Rikhardinkatu Library dutifully waiting for the foretold 2 minutes of silence at the start of the audio track to dissolve. A male British accent begins to whisper musings and instructions. Throughout this hour, as this man’s voice leaves you in silence, returns or is replaced by the voices of others. At one point your attention is drawn to your own internal reading voice, just where does that speaker reside? A delightful mystery. You are invited to press your hand hard into the blank white page, to feel it’s resistance and transportative possibility.

You have the opportunity to read upside down, to chase traces of vanishing text across the page; to misread and to stumble haphazardly through a set of volumes, occasionally dragging your partner with you. You observe other readers, do they look almost as if they are sleeping? Finally, you are offered an example of just how deeply, how very rapidly, well turned words on a printed page can carry you to another place. The Quiet Volume wants for us to acknowledge and take reverie in all that is wonderful about books and about reading.

It is easy to see why The Quiet Volume is enjoying such success with being programmed in a slew of international theatre festivals. First and foremost, it has Tim Etchells’, of Forced Entertainment, name attached. Secondly, it’s infrastructure is seductively light: all that is required is the consent of a local library, preferably grand and old; several sets of some specific texts; some iPods; some The Quiet Volume volumes; and some handy festival volunteers to invigilate. Creator Ant Hampton does not even need to be there. What a sweet and savvy deal. Really. Essentially, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact the minimal footprint of the work is commendable. But these commercially astute elements are rendered all too obvious as they sit in tandem with the many other assumptions that the work, at times insultingly, makes.

The trouble with The Quiet Volume begins with the unceremonious way in which are lead and instructed into the space by our festival hosts. I understand that they are not performers, and that they are probably there on a voluntary basis, but as an entree to a work this set-up is disastrous. We are cautioned about making mistakes, we overhear previous participants giving their feedback; even more disastrous.

The work begins, I am paired with a stranger, this is fine. What is not fine is how cursory our need to be in this together seems. I feel sutured to my companion without my consent. What if I want to leave? I did not ask for this responsibility of carrying a stranger through the work and my reverie does not depend on him. We read at very different speeds. Anxiety between us heightens as our instructions become confusing. While this may be a trope of the work – inviting us into the dark to fumble back with the light of the written word – for my companion, it brought shame, that his English was what was at fault. He broke our silence to apologise.

These are the complaints I heard so often around the reception of The Quiet Volume: audience members with English as a second, third or fourth language feeling either outraged or apologetic for ’missing’ the point of the work because of ’deficits’ in their grasp of English. The Quiet Volume is an Anglophone work, which celebrates, quite beautifully, the written English word. It plays with nuanced, complex, lyrical English in a way that is not for broad audiences, despite its ambitions to be so, lets be honest about that. Which leads me to suggest that despite how ’hot’ the work and the names of Ant Hampton & Tim Etchells might be, and how seductively light the infrastructure of this autoteatro is, too many assumptions were made about Baltic Circle audiences in the programming of The Quiet Volume in the festival.

Melanie Jame Walsh
Writer is an Australian-born artist based in Berlin. She is a member of triage live art collective and creative director of savage amusement. &


Ant Hampton & Tim Etchells: The Quiet Volume
Credits: Ant Hampton, Tim Etchells, Seth Etchells, Jenny Naden, Katja Timmerberg, TiTo Toblerone
Commissioned by: Ciudades Paralelas, a festival produced by HAU Berlin and Schauspielhaus Zürich, in collaboration with Goethe-Institute Warschau & Teatr Nowy, in coproduction with Vooruit Arts Centre, Belgium.
Supported by: Kulturstiftung des Bundes, the Swiss Cultural foundation Pro Helvetica and Goethe Institute Buenos Aires & Vooruit Arts Centre, Belgium.