The usher’s wavering torchlight was all we had to guide us into the pitchblack Hackney Downs Studio space at the start of Under Glass. Then one by one the contents of the large glass cabinets and jars around us were spotlit. A woman in a green dress (Maëva Berthelot) who was nervous, awkward, then terrified. A man working at his desk (Sam Coren), who became more and more confounded by his office and the tight glass space he was trapped in. A woman in a long silk negligee (Elisabeth Schilling) whose languorous, Hollywood-glamour poses morphed into sorrow and anguish. A busybody on the phone (Sarah Cameron), upright in a tall glass tube, reciting snatches of poetry (specially commissioned by Alice Oswald) that revealed a dark and twisted underbelly to her village life. Closest to us, a woman in an outsized jam jar (Sachi Kimura), wriggling and contorting, or bent in half at the waist describing anxious circles round her prison.
In another part of the room was a young woman in a low flat box (Silvia Mercuriali), lying on grass – sometimes luxuriating as though sunbathing in the park, sometimes pressed against the sides, like Alice grown huge after consuming the “eat me” cakes. In an annexe, we were shown a couple (Hayley Carmichael and Riccardo T) in a petri dish-shaped container restlessly trying to share a bed.
Specimens in jars, then, who we observed as though they were scientific samples – small, individual moments picked out, held in suspension and examined. There was drama but no resolution, and not a lot that you could definitively call dance (due in large part, of course, to the performers’ confinement). Under Glass has had various iterations since it was commissioned by Sadler’s Wells in 2008; the director Suzie Willson plays well with our fascination with people-watching – to have us scurry about in the gloom made it feel as if we were complicit in something secretive; the spotlights picking out the specimens pinned them with ruthless clinical efficiency.
A disturbing cabinet of curiosities, then, with a suitably disorientating score by Paul Clark – but this 50-minute promenade piece was perhaps a little too ambiguous to feel completely satisfying. And the distancing mechanism of placing the items of interest under glass meant you could feel fleetingly intrigued, but not particularly sympathetic.