I have yet to experience grief.
The closest I have come is in a dream, where I found myself attending the funeral of someone who meant a lot to me; who I wish I could have kept in my life, but chose not to. When I awoke, my mouth was gaping open like a wound, my whole body collapsing inwards. And that was just a dream.
The way that opening night responded to Evangeline, a ground-breaking movement and sound-based performance informed by loss, suggested their encounters were far more real.
Confronting, cathartic and with sublime production by Gregor Murray, Chenoeh Miller’s work left the audience sitting stunned in their seats. Old couples held hands as they slowly made their exit. A few had faces swimming with tears.
I may not know grief, but I have witnessed it in my parents, and it is not a seemly emotion when expressed. In its raw form, it cannot be civilised. What is normal does not compute. It breaks convention with a complete obliviousness to the everyday workings of the world.
The performers on stage, their eyelashes aflame and hair wild, were at times monstrous to behold.
At first there were just two: one whose ritualised movements were equally as distressing as the other’s, whose sluggish signs of animation grew and grew, as something terrible stirred, then took hold.
Then, in a gripping entrance, more bodies emerged: erupting amongst us like zombies or souls possessed, their bodies jerked and shuddered in an incomprehensible rictus of unknowable pain. A grim ensemble of women, they together faced the high winds of their personal apocalypse and howled.
Hartley Kemp’s lighting, here and throughout, is indispensable.
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The structure of the performance was in movements, and the second I found most affecting.
Immersed in a soundscape gently engineered by Dane Alexander, we became acquainted with the way that suffering resists language.
Distorted fragments of speech stumble and overlap, stabbing blindly towards truth with repetition. You hear faraway sounds of either a playground or screams, as on-stage, the women numbly enact the mundane rituals of the living.
Speaking to us before the performance, the director had prepared us for the final movement.
When it came around, she stood up again and directed our attention to a sign: PLEASE TOUCH. For a full 15 or so minutes, audience members were encouraged to leave their seats and offer what solace they could to the distraught performers, arrayed like swaying statues, the extremity of their pain evident in every crumpled posture, every corded tendon on their neck.
And the audience, bless them, did. They offered what small, tactile comfort they could: with held hands, hugs and tenderness.
These gestures were sometimes responded to; sometimes not. Sometimes a hug was returned, or a kindness awakened pure joy. Sometimes it was as though the comforter was not even there, and the silent wailing went on.
But each small act seemed to go some small way in recuperating the grieving individual from their profound separation; drawing them away from that lonely shoreline where their loss stranded them, back into the fold of the living.
“It is intolerable to have one’s sufferings twinned with anybody else’s,” wrote Susan Sontag, writing on the singularity of individual pain. But it is also intolerable to suffer alone. Evangeline speaks to how solace can be both genuine and performative; and even if it doesn’t always reach the other, it is an accomplice – with time – in the process of healing.
Evangeline play until Saturday at the Old 505, part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.
This content created with the support of City of Sydney