Still Life

3 out of 5 stars
Still Life 2017 Sydney Festival 2016 production still 01 photographer credit Julian Mommert
Photograph: Julian Mommert 'Still Life'

This fusion of physical theatre and art installation will yield rewards for philosophers and zen masters

Depressives, nihilists, zen-masters, philosophers and students of Greek mythology – one can imagine these are the people who will get most out of this work devised by Greek artist and theatre-maker Dimitris Papaioannou. It requires that the audience enter into the meditative space of the piece, which consists largely of several sequences of repetitive manual tasks, lasting 80 minutes in total. Several people had walked out of the show by the 40-minute mark, growing to ten within the next 30 minutes.

Papaioannou talks a good game when it comes to Still Life. In an interview with the Herald, he says “This is my theme: the human struggle to create meaning in life through labour, through trying to elevate matter. It is about the irrational and ridiculous state of being where a person is experiencing the weight of matter yet craving for lightness and speed."

The first sequence sees a man in a black suit drag what appears to be a concrete block, propped against his bent-over back, from the back of the stage to the front. After some fussing with the block and its disintegrating flaky surface, this modern-day Sisyphus pulls it open – revealing it to be some kind of foam – and crawls through, even as another man (with similar costume and physical appearance) emerges, legs first, from the other side. At the point roughly where one man is half in and the other half out, they pause, and the 'top' looks into the audience, apparently bemused; to us, it looks as though we are seeing just one man – albeit with legs at an improbable angle. There are titters of laughter. This happens perhaps ten more times, with two women entering the mix towards the end of the sequence; there’s a gloriously weird moment where we are looking at a pair of female legs sticking out of a concrete wall, with a mop of hair bobbing around between them.

Another sequence sees a woman walk slowly backwards from front of stage to back, while a series of black-suited men take turns wobbling a thin sheet of perspex over the length of her body – creating a distorted image and a sound not unlike the fake thunder you might create in school theatre production. Yet another sequence sees the performers pulling up a series of hitherto unseen masking tapes on the stage floor, for perhaps ten minutes.

The aesthetic of Still Life is often ravishing: there are many striking images and moments of epic theatre. It’s possible to see the show as a metaphor for life: moments of beauty and comedy connected by long stretches of dull labour and seemingly absurd tasks.

But there's also an exhausting sense of nihilism within the piece, because Papaioannou doesn’t place his sequences within any kind of narrative structure or allow them to interrelate; there’s no sense of them existing within a meaningful universe of interconnected ideas, objects and bodies. His performers struggle with tasks for no apparent reward or reason. For this audience member the message seemed clear: life is absurdity and frustration with brief moments of relief; we struggle, we are frequently bemused, and occasionally we remember to look up at the stars.

But some will find a kind of bliss in what Papaioannou describes as the “meditative energy” generated by the show, and those flashes of beauty and wonder. 

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