Written and performed by Venetia Bowe and Fionnuala Gygax, Hotel Happiness ran from September 11-16 at the Project Arts Centre as part of Dublin Fringe Festival. Despite the name, the titular Hotel Happiness in which the play is set does not seem to be a particularly enjoyable place to spend the night. Before the performance began, I was taken in by the drabness of the hotel’s interior: The set looked like the most depressing Travelodge ever, complete with what looks to be an utterly inedible bowl of fruit.
The play is character-centric, based entirely on the interactions between two women, Nina and Celeste. Both characters come to Hotel Happiness to take a break from their tumultuous personal lives. Upon arrival, they quickly find themselves locked in the same room, where they must remain for 24 hours, forcing the two strangers to make conversation. Even though the hotel exists as an abstract metaphor outside the scope of ordinary reality, you have to wonder about the TripAdvisor reviews…
“Over time, the viewer realises what they have in common: both are trapped by society’s rules for what a woman should be like”
Nina and Celeste initially represent foils to each other’s contrasting personalities. While Nina is a disaffected composer apparently content to “live outside the system”, Celeste is a scientist who constantly fiddles with her test tubes and complies with societal norms to an almost robotic degree. However, over time, the viewer realises what they have in common: both are trapped by society’s rules for what a woman should be like. These details are revealed through dialogue as Nina and Celeste grapple with their respective outlooks. In all honesty, I found the initial narrative a bit frustrating, since it seemed highly unrealistic that two complete strangers would immediately delve into arguing about their core beliefs. While one could argue that realism was not the point, when the dialogue fell flat, it was more difficult for me to buy into the core premise.
In contrast, when it cut loose from the constant exposition, Hotel Happiness truly shined. The immediate vulnerability and openness in the character’s dialogue allows the audience to forget that they have only just met. However, the core message of the piece became most prominent when the lights turned blue. During this time, the actors stopped their conversations and began to dance back and forth, imitating the motion of a grandfather clock to symbolise the limited nature of their reproductive cycles. The play’s poignacy also shone through when the characters gargled water and paddled their feet while passing the time. These moments allowed the audience to feel the true weight of the topics discussed, such as gendered expectations mandating that women should naturally have strong maternal instincts.
“The play captured something of that strangeness — of having to reckon with patriarchial expectations that alienate you from the world if you fail to conform to them”
Being a woman can feel strange. During these aforementioned moments, the play certainly captured something of that strangeness — of having to reckon with patriarchial expectations that alienate you from the world if you fail to conform to them. Even in the 21st century, there are still too many requirements — to be ladylike, monogamous, a devoted wife and mother. When one character tucked a sweater under her dress, simulating the pregnancy she wants but will never have, I felt a lump in my throat. I felt both sympathy for the characters and bewildered by the irregular nature of the scene. In a way, it felt more true than reality.
“I cannot in good conscience portray Hotel Happiness as an ideal vacation getaway, I would recommend it as a place to meditate on one’s thoughts of grief and womanhood”
Complementing the moving performances by Bowe and Gygax, the creative team played a pivotal role in shaping the play’s atmosphere. Between the deeply impersonal and naturalistic set design (Luke Casserly) and the dramatic shifts of music and lighting (Denis Clohessy, Dara Hoban), I found myself entirely absorbed. Although I cannot in good conscience portray Hotel Happiness as an ideal vacation getaway, I would recommend it as a place to meditate on one’s thoughts of grief and womanhood. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what hotels are all about.