La Mama: Psychopomp & Seething

Psychopomp & Seething begins by taking the audience on a ride in the La Mama Courthouse. It’s not a hold on and scream ride, but you do move and it ends in pure darkness.

And it gets darker.

Kate Brennan. Seething. Photo by Sarah Walker
Kate Brennan. Seething. Photo by Sarah Walker

Seething, the first piece, opens with an older woman (Vanessa O’Neil) with long blond-grey hair in a sound booth with a red-velvet curtained wall. She’s reading a poem that’s easy to listen to as music rather than words. When a younger dancer (Kate Brennan), with a recently shaven head, comes into the empty space between the booth and audience, her presence feels slightly intrusive until it’s clear that she’s dancing to the words being spoken.

These are words about bodies and love and how we blame our bodies for being imperfect and not deserving of love. It’s somehow comforting and confronting as the two woman are compared to but rely on each other.

The words are by Penelope Bartlau. Using the musical nature of words and poetry, it’s writing that’s meant to be heard rather than read, and the kind that you to listen to with far more than your ears. She says that the works come from a mix of dreams, her own experiences and the experiences of her friends. This blend of dream and reality makes for a familiar unease because even when we wake up, we hold the too-real emotional experience of our dreams, and that emotion is never too far from a wide-awake truth.

This becomes more evident in Psychopomp.

Aislinn Murray. Psychopomp. Photo by Sarah Walker
Aislinn Murray. Psychopomp. Photo by Sarah Walker

This piece was developed by Barking Spider at Monash University Student Theatre (MUST) last year. Directed and designed by Jason Lehane, who is also the MUST Technical Manager, the cast and crew are/were MUST members.

Recently, The Age published an opinion piece that associated student theatre with “young things running around with their underpants on their heads”. I doubt that writer sees student theatre made in Melbourne. This is the second work in this year’s La Mama program that was developed through MUST. Although often raw, the new theatre by students in this city (Deakin and Melbourne as much as Monash) is exciting and dangerous and is created with an understanding that theatre and storytelling are so much more than well-written words on a stage.

The stage in Psychopomp is a two by two square box. The first signs of life from the four boxes are noises that become the voices of four people, or animals.

Designer, and director, Jason Lehane has created a world that’s distant but impossible not to be drawn into. While Seething uses the emptiness of the space, Psychopomp is confined and impossible to escape from. By boxing in the boxes and the audience, there’s no where else to look and it’s easy to imagine that this four are a few among endless unseen boxes.

Each box contains a teller who’s compelled to tell their story. Captured in their own worlds, the intricate design (costume and set) and exquisite lighting hint at the contained secrets. There’s a warm nest, a lush garden and two darker more-empty spaces that become vivid as imaginations fill in the un-lit horror.

Unaware of each other or the watching eyes, each tell a story about a death. And while they are beautiful to hear, they are somewhat traumatic to feel.

Actors James Cerche, Nicola Grear, Aislinn Murray and Lindsay Templeton are the four storytellers. Each bring a remarkable emotional understanding to their stories. With writing that isn’t a simple narrative and direction that ensure the wholeness of the picture, they bring all of themselves to their story while working together like a musical quartet to let their stories overlap with sound and meaning.

Psychopomp & Seething is a work that stays with you long after you’ve left. Being unsure where you are in a well-known space can be unnerving, and, as it’s devised to be listened to as sound as much as words, it’s easy to simply experience being there. But the truth of what was told will catch up with you because it’s made to be seen and felt as much as heard.

There are limited seats for each performance and no room to expand, so book for this one. And, as the timing is right, also book for The Unspoken Word is Joe around the corner at the La Mama theatre.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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