Death for the living

Leah Mercer

sacredCOW, The Quivering: a matter of life and death

sacredCOW, The Quivering: a matter of life and death

The first sign that sacredCOW’s performance is about to begin is indeed a kind of quivering, a rustling among the plastic strips hanging from the ceiling in John Levey’s sparse, but effective set, as if the wind has changed and something is afoot. Then from deep inside the cavernous brick hallway running behind the Brisbane Powerhouse Visy theatre comes the sound of voices, layered, spoken and sung; the content is obscured for the moment. The performers are first sighted amidst Suzon Fuk’s projections which use the floor and back wall as their surface. Underlying the entire performance, constantly changing and merging, they are vital scenographic components. While the detail is sometimes unclear, the evocation of a space that is never static, that’s in transit, is clearly felt. At first sight the performers seem to be floating mid-air, holding a lantern they navigate the deep recesses of the Visy before arriving onstage on what is revealed to be a hospital gurney. It’s a compelling beginning and casts a spell over the entire performance.

Described as “an irreverent meditation on death and beyond”, The Quivering was inspired by Homer’s Sirens. Rather than femmes fatales cruelly luring mariners to their death, sacredCOW portrays the sirens as “compassionate lamenters” navigating the passage of death. Once on stage, the performers (Dawn Albinger, Scotia Monkivitch and Julie Robson) transform from sirens crossing the River Styx into co(s)mic waitresses in an outback Australian roadhouse. This transformation, like the countless others on which this performance is built, appears effortless. It soon becomes apparent that this is no ordinary roadhouse. Here bodies are washed and souls are sung onwards. In their direct address and occasional audience interactions, the intention, and sometimes the effect, is to implicate the audience in this passing. One of the motivating factors behind the generation of this work has been to “address community responses to death and dying”, given that “dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living” (Walter Benjamin, program note). Accordingly, one of sacredCOW’s creative partners in this project has been Mount Olivet Hospice where the group were artists-in-residence.

Combining the comic with the cosmic is one of The Quivering’s most compelling traits. Filling time between the dying, these waitresses, like everyone stuck in eternal limbo, are by turns moody, bored and ecstatic. There are resonances here with Sartre’s No Exit and pretty much anything by Beckett, as The Quivering depicts the inevitable toll of familiarity. The broad, physicalised humour that arises from this is a perfect counterpoint to the delicacy usually associated with the subject matter. Special mention must be made of Monkivitch’s adept work in those perfect Aussie signifiers, rubber thongs. Her ability to maintain her grip throughout all manner of physical manoeuvring verges on the virtuosic.

Each performer brings unique qualities to the performance: Albinger, a fleshy sensuality; Monkivitch, a deadpan that flits between absurd and melancholic; and Robson, a sweetly naïve persona that is rounded out by the warm depths of her singing voice. Yet they are an ensemble in every sense of the word as each of the characters/performers is a vital component in the overall effect of the piece. It is rare to witness such intimate and effortless ensemble work, apparent both in the performance work and in the depth of image and beauty of language.

The overriding language of The Quivering is an interplay between image and sound (with exquisite compositions by Robson, Catherine Mundy and Brett Collery). These are the moments that leave an imprint. Monkivitch running on the spot, transforming before our eyes and the endless progression of deaths and dying depicted in a mesmeric sequence of bodies laid out. So simple and yet so clearly portraying the unrelenting nature of death both images evoke complex emotions in the audience. Even so, there were times in the orchestration of the piece where the layers smothered rather than illuminated, where the constant activity sometimes obscured moments that required our specific attention. A few stripped back moments, some time alone with each of the waitresses might have punctuated the overall effect.

Ending as it began, with the turning of the tide, the waitresses set sail again: “Send us a postcard. Let us know where you end up!” This is a performance that I hope will turn up again—it deserves a long life.

sacredCOW, The Quivering: a matter of life and death, devised by sacredCOW & Nikki Heywood, director Nikki Heywood, performers Dawn Albinger, Scotia Monkivitch, Julie Robson, dramaturg Virginia Baxter, music Julie Robson, Catherine Mundy, Brett Collery, design John Levey, video Suzon Fuks, lighting Andrew Meadows, sound Brett Collery; Brisbane Powerhouse, Nov 5-15

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 40

© Leah Mercer; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003
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