In a darkened room under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, perfect strangers are embracing each other. And no, it’s not a secret swinger’s club, it’s art — or more specifically, an interactive performance dreamt up by composer and musical director Verity Standen. Over the next three days, she’ll be leading groups of 25 people into this quiet corner of the Southbank Centre where they’ll be seriously hugged — and sung to as well. Sounds weird? We thought so too. And then decided to send two reviewers with very different levels of tactility to try it out…
Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆
Ruth Hargreaves: Other than a swift embrace with my family on Christmas morning, hugs are not my cup of tea. The idea of being held, at length, by a total stranger, was less my cup of tea and more a bucket of cold sick. And yet there I was. At Hug. Sitting on a chair, blindfolded, awaiting the prolonged touch of a singer and hoping I didn’t smell of garlic. Or poo.
As we sit and wait in the darkness, a beautiful voice rings out. Then another, then another. More join in, and soon a swirling mass of voices rings out from all around in chorus. The singers (apparently there are only as many singers as audience members, but without sight to verify it sounds like hundreds) move around the room, resulting in a completely absorbing sound experience. It feels almost like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, but an auditory, chanting rabbit hole full of voices. It’s disorientating, but I like it.
Suddenly a voice comes to a halt in front of me, and my heartbeat goes up a good few notches. I start to worry about smelling of poo again. This is surely my “embracer”. A soft touch on the arms, and I’m moved to a standing position. One of my hands is directed onto her shoulder, the other on her waist, and she starts to sing. Beautifully.
Yes, it’s awkward. Getting used to the embrace of a total stranger, while blindfolded, leaves me feeling dizzy and uneven footed. A period of weird shuffling ensues. But she doesn’t break stride, her frame continues to reverberate with the deep resonance of her voice, and we soon settle down. It’s the blindfold that prevents this experience from being unbearable. Without the awkward eye contact, my embracer becomes nothing more than a vessel — a singing hot water bottle — something I can hold and, dare I say it, find comfort in. A brief period of head-to-head contact even resembles intimacy, and leaves me thinking of a mother singing her child a lullaby. I’m no convert to physical contact with strangers. I’ll continue to glare at commuters who accidentally lean up against me on the tube. But removing personality from the equation oddly made it all the more personal.
Londonist Rating: ★☆☆☆☆
Stu Black: Like any normal person I love a good hug. Whether it’s family, friends or someone frisking me at an airport, full-on physical contact is one of the things I look forward to in life. So, I went into this show with arms open wide, looking forward to indulging my inner hippy. But as it turns out, Hug aims to be much more than a bit of opportunistic flesh-pressing. Once you’re sat down and securely blindfolded, a chorus of female voices pipe up, their voices everywhere, chanting the single syllable “you”.
Honestly, I find this slightly sinister — clearly the huggers have you in their sights, choosing their prey it seems. I’m really not sure about the blindfold part, especially as now there are male voices too. I can feel them wandering about me, heavier footfalls as they honk out lower notes. Am I meant to stand or reach out for one? It’s actually the opposite of relaxing. Meanwhile, the “you” they’re singing changes into “lay” — so I wonder whether I’m meant to get down on the floor then? It becomes even more disorienting as the soundscape morphs from something like a call to prayer to a full-on Viking funeral march.
Then one of the sirens has got me! Jeez, I wish I hadn’t watched Under The Skin last night. She’s slowly wrapping herself around my body and breathing in my ear. She smells a bit like liquorice all-sorts, I note as she starts yodelling through me. Yep, this is definitely definitely weird. I can feel every movement of her torso — I’m not going to describe it in any greater detail, but yeah this is as close as I’ve ever been to a total stranger who I can’t actually see.
The song changes and I realise now that my legs are quivering. Am I enjoying this? I feel unbelievably self-conscious — and afraid I may accidentally fart. As my hugger squeezes me ever-tighter, I picture that snake in the Jungle Book. I really don’t want to be hypnotised, but at this point I can hardly escape. I feel like I’m being molested by Enya! And then… just as suddenly as it began an uncertain amount of time ago my hug is over. The singing fades and I’m returned to my seat. The chorus of voices dissolves completely and I hear someone saying I can take off my blindfold. Phew.
I stumble outside blinking into the light, still wondering whether I enjoyed the experience or not. It takes me a while to re-combobulate and I’m left with the question: will I ever think about hugs as innocently as I used to again.
Hug at Southbank Centre has now sold out, but since it’s a touring show it will probably pop up again soon.