Death, it is commonly acknowledged, has always been a bit of a taboo in Western culture. We tend to avoid thinking about it, talking about it, and, wherever possible, experiencing it. We gloss over it with language, making every attempt to euphemise it, rendering it inoffensive and denying its inevitability. We call it 'passing on', 'passing away' or 'crossing over'; we speak of people 'kicking the bucket' and 'shuffling off this mortal coil'. Mankind's struggle against mortality, which continues unabated to this day, has long been at the centre of our various endeavours; it pervades our art, our literature, our religion, philosophy and science.
This reluctance to confront the reaper is, by and large, ingenuous. It leaves us, not inoculated against death, but rather lulls us into a false sense of security, which, when ruptured, as it inevitably must be, leaves, not a scar, but an open wound. It is only by talking about death openly and honestly – by rolling it around on the tongue and hearing how it sounds when spoken aloud – that we can truly begin to accept and make peace with it, and it is only by making peace with death that we can truly begin to appreciate – and indeed, fully live – our lives.
Unfolding in that transitory moment between one's final breath and the cold embrace of nothingness, when the body, with the slightest of shudders, lets go and releases its "four grams of soul", sacredCOW's The Quivering is an intelligent and, against all odds, often hilarious rumination on death and the act of dying. Set in a rundown diner on the banks of the River Styx, where three rambunctious divas, the mythological Sirens of Homer's Odyssey, recast here as "cosmic waitresses" with ocker accents and a bit o' outback charm, wait for the tides to change so that they can usher us, the audience, onward into death. While we wait, they aim to prepare us – to ready us, as best they can, to give ourselves over into death without fear, and to accept it, not as the antithesis to life, but rather as an integral and, in many ways, definitive part of it.
This is a grim and heady charge, but the Sirens, arriving bare-breasted on the wind before donning their aprons, lighting their cigarettes, and introducing themselves, execute it with both irreverence and compassion.
Flatly refusing to sugarcoat death even as they prepare us for it, the women are, if occasionally a little screwy, immensely likable creations. There's the voluptuous, slightly scary, Sharelle (Dawn Albinger), who always seems to be hungry or thirsty, and whose skill set includes picking her underwear off the floor and putting it on without using her hands, literally putting her foot in her mouth, and cracking every bone in her body (not to mention yours, if you'll let her). There's the good-natured Maureen (Julie Robson), with her goofy grin and her mother's apron, which she wears herself, from time to time, whenever she wants to feel like her. And then there's my favourite, Singrid (Scotia Monkivitch), who with her wry sideward glances and impish grinning at the audience, always seems to be sharing a private joke with us or else apologising, with a fleeting moment of eye contact, for the behaviour of her two companions.
The women play cards, sing and recite poetry, and dance together to pass the time. They offer us food – bird's brains are their specialty – and talk at length about a little bit of everything. They also die, or at least play dead, loudly and repeatedly. They act out a grizzly catalogue of deaths – suicides, heart attacks and murders – laughing all the while as they do so, before staging an autopsy, playing at resurrection, and grieving one another's passing. There is an element of slapstick to much of this, of course, but it is often tempered, or kept in check, by the enormity of the themes, on the one hand, and by passages of great beauty and sadness, on the other.
The performers effect these shifts in tone with almost imperceptible precision, and indeed their performances are without a doubt the heart and soul of the production. Albinger, Robson and Monkivitch, who co-wrote the script with director Nikki Heywood, have created in Sharelle, Maureen and Singrid three unique and utterly memorable characters, not only as individuals, but also, more importantly, as an ensemble. These are characters that, with a seemingly casual but carefully considered logic, take various images of and ideas about womanhood – the Diva, the Siren, the Caregiver, Liberty – and collapse them into one another in the melting pot of the ensemble. This is by no means a secondary or minor concern of the production, either, but rather part and parcel of its overriding concern with death. The image of womanhood that emerges here – an image of womanhood as the state in which someone understands, is unafraid of, and can navigate the mysterious waters of death and beyond – is complex, multifaceted and, despite or maybe because of the comedy, often deeply moving.
In the best scene of the production, Singrid, surrounded on all sides by an encroaching darkness, runs helplessly on the spot in pursuit of a blinding light, which, no matter how hard she tries, how fast she runs, how far she stretches out to grab it, she, like every one of us, is ultimately unable to reach. The tragedy of this beautiful image, this metaphor for an entire people, is not that the light is unattainable, but rather the fact that we feel we must chase it. It is only when we realise that we don't, and, in so doing, accept the darkness as our fate, that the winds can return – as they eventually must – and blow us along to whatever comes next.
La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse | 349 Drummond St. Carlton
11 – 22 July 2007
Tues, Wed & Sun @ 6.30pm; Thur, Fri & Sat @ 8pm; Matinee: Sat @ 4pm
$20 / $10
(03) 9347 6142 Fax: (03) 9349 2063