Next Wave: Alison Croggon in the no-places of Seer by the House of Vnholy
The year had been a year of terror, and of feelings more intense than terror for which there is no name upon the earth. For many prodigies and signs had taken place, and far and wide, over sea and land, the black wings of the Pestilence were spread abroad.
Shadow: A Parable, Edgar Allan Poe
Waiting is a no-place, neither one thing nor the other. At 3pm on a Tuesday afternoon, I’m waiting in the foyer of Darebin Arts Centre, a modern complex on Bell Street in Thornbury. I’m slightly early.
Hardly anyone is around. A helpful usher has already crossed me off the ticket list and put my bag in a locker. I shove my iPhone in my pocket, because I don’t like handing over the phone to strangers. I wonder if it’s okay to have something in my pocket. I presume someone will tell me if it isn’t.
After a few minutes, I’m led to the waiting room for Seer, the show by House of Vnholy that I’m here to see. It’s based on, or at least inspired by, Edgar Allen Poe’s Shadow: A Parable, a short, lyrical piece he wrote in 1850. I’m wondering if it will be something like Oráculos, the work by Teatro de los Sentidos that is probably my favourite immersive experience. That also took place in darkness. It would be a hard call: Teatro de los Sentidos basically invented immersive theatre, and are masters of it. I’m mostly in a state of blankness, without expectation. I can hear electronic sound nearby, which I guess is the show I’m going to see. This is a single-audience experience, and somebody else is here before me.
It’s been a full-on week for me, full of events with people looking at me, and a no-place is restful. This waiting room isn’t even a room: it’s part of a hallway by a stair. In front of me are windows looking out on the arts centre carpark. The space is defined by a couple of pink curtains and three mirrored plinths of different heights.
The tallest plinth, which reaches to the ceiling, has a huge posy of flowers attached to it, the kind that might be left on a gravestone. They are already dying: a couple of flower heads are scattered on the floor. As I watch, another petal drops down. The middle pillar holds a small reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, half covered by drips of black paint. The shortest pillar has a neon light sticking up vertically beside it. I speculate what they might mean, but reach no conclusions.
I am sitting on a chair facing the middle pillar and I can see myself reflected back. I looked tired.
After a while, a soberly dressed woman enters, pacing slowly and solemnly. She wears a kind of mask, a Perspex pane that is suspended in front of her face. She tells me to take off my shoes and gives me an iPad with instructions. I stand up to greet her and sit down in a different chair when she leaves. Now I can still see what seems to be the same reflection in the middle pillar, but this time I’m not in it: it’s just a row of empty chairs. It’s slightly disconcerting, as if I’ve suddenly turned into a vampire.
A few minutes later the woman reappears, signing me to follow, and I slowly pace up the stairs behind her. I enter another anteroom, dark, with red lighting. She intsructs me to put on some heavy rubber waders. It’s awkward, they make my body feel heavy. Then I am seated in front of a display, four mannequin heads topped by black skulls. This time I’m looking at a detail of Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring his children, an image that used to give me nightmares as a child. The open, gaping mouth tearing at the dismembered body, the glaring eyes. The viscerality of it.
To those, nevertheless, cunning in the stars, it was not unknown that the heavens wore an aspect of ill; and to me, the Greek Oinos, among others, it was evident that now had arrived the alternation of that seven hundred and ninety-fourth year when, at the entrance of Aries, the planet Jupiter is conjoined with the red ring of the terrible Saturnus.
Bodies are heavy.
Again I’m beckoned away by my attendant. This time I’m led into a dark theatre. We pause briefly outside, looking into the auditorium through a window. I can see the soul before me walking towards the stage, the steps lit red. By the time I enter, it’s dark. I sit down in a booth that’s too high for my feet to touch the ground and swing my heavy rubber boots. My body is already doing strange things, dislocated from its usual sensory signals.
Before me is an empty stage. This show is all for me.
I’m not sure if this is a representation of death, or dying, or after death. It’s certainly another place of transition. This lighting and sound is a palimpsest on which each audience might project anything. Fear, hope, desire, the interior musics of their body. Me, I feel no pulse of fear, just a patient curiosity.
The sound is loud, a choir of abstract voices vibrating through my body, the voices of “a multitude of beings”. I see a faint whiteness before me that grows gradually brighter. A blurred white slit, widening and narrowing, focussing and unfocussing. I can’t help seeing it as a cunt, throbbing and opening and closing. Why are cunts always representations of death? They are such literal, ordinary things, like hands, and they are turned into such strange symbols.
Sometimes they are the organ through which babies are born. The babies are alive before they’re born, though. Is death a threshold, like a cunt is for birth? Or it it just an end?
The cunt dissolves into the dark. Now there are faint swirls, as if oil is moving over the scrim. I can almost make out forms, but not quite, before they disappear and reform.
My eyes are playing tricks in the darkness. I think I see bars of shadow reaching out from my eyes across the space. I’m not sure what is lighting design and what is the purple shapes behind my eyes. The music is insistent now, it has machinery in it. I feel aware of the architecture surrounding me, of concrete and glass. Now the scrim is red, and there is something behind it, a shadow that I can’t quite make out: “- a dark and undefined shadow- a shadow such as the moon, when low in heaven, might fashion from the figure of a man: but it was the shadow neither of man nor of God, nor of any familiar thing…”
I’m wondering if the interior landscape of death can be represented in any way we might comprehend. I think of death as a darkness, the final closing of sight, the final erasure of consciousness. A nothing, like before I was born, when I thought nothing and was nothing.
We draw light across the dark, our stories and myths, in our attempts to understand this thing that, when it comes to it, we cannot understand at all.
The door now is really a door. The scrim lifts, the curtain lifts. A naked man stands in the doorway, lit red. He beckons me down the auditorium, onto the stage, and I follow him through the wings into a passageway. Now I’m backstage, all alone: the naked man has vanished somewhere upstairs, or maybe through a hidden door.
I splash my way through a hallway of shallow water and turn at the end to find an empty dressing room, dimly lit in red. Now I am thinking of the strange rooms in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, interiors where it might be raining. I’m not sure which way to go, as there are two exits. I wander around the dressing room, which feels like all empty dressing rooms, waiting for something to happen. There’s a little alcove, and I enter it. It’s a mirrored sarcophagus. There’s a black pillow. The invitation is clear, I could lie down and stare at the ceiling, like the vampire I briefly thought I was when my reflection vanished.
I think of Poe’s story about the man who is buried alive and I don’t lie down.
I leave by the other exit. More stairs made strange by red light. I find another door. By now I’m intrigued, prepared to go through more rooms, more representations of waiting. These are places where you never arrive. But when I open the door, I’m suddenly back in the foyer of a suburban arts centre.
I take off the waders and put on my shoes.
I’m not quite sure what I think of this solemn gothic work. I walk to Bell Station, turning it over in my head. I’m quite sure that individual responses will be as various as people are, and will depend on what that palimpsest brings forth out of the subconscious, what we write on the darkness with our minds. I think that perhaps there is something else that Seer is leaning towards, some articulation that it either hasn’t reached or that it has refused.
Oráculos was intimate in a way this wasn’t, weaving its Tarot symbolisms into a darkness that called up all sorts of unexpected memories. Seer is abstract, summoning a bunch of abstract thoughts: Poe’s story, random associative images, the insistence of my body’s presence. It created a place of interesting transitions, where I was I happy to spend an hour of my life, thinking about death. But not really feeling it.
Seer, design and concept by Matthew Adey. Dramaturgy by Marcel Dorney, sound design by Jannah Quill, systems design by Andre Vanderwert, costume design by Benjamin Hancock. Performed by Shoshannah Oks, Leila Rodgers, Marcus Mackenzie and Johnathan Peck. House of Vnholy, Darebin Arts Centre, Next Wave Festival. Closed.