Performance review: Eternity, St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane Festival

Circa's Brisbane Festival show contemplates the eternal to impressive effect.
Woman in white doing the aerial splits on red silks against a stained glass window.

For many years Arthur Stace would chalk the word ‘Eternity’ on the pavements of Sydney. It was an evangelical mission, inspired by religious fervour, which he carried out in his elegant cursive script. Lawrence Johnston made a wonderful film about him. Above all, Stace’s was a solitary undertaking, calling on the rest of us to consider our after lives, but having little to do with anyone else in the here and now.

This site-specific show from Circa couldn’t take a more different position. It may be staged in the imposing surrounds of Brisbane’s St John’s Cathedral and delve into such profound concepts as life, death, hope and despair, but its relationship to religion and spirituality is all about connection – human connection.

Pre-performance, as younger Circa performers twist and pose on plinths, moodily it and looking for all the world like angels come to life, audience members are led around the cathedral by a rope. This is not as alarming as it sounds, rather a gentle conga line of coming together and facing the same direction.

Throughout the performance this motif reappears from time to time, with the finale featuring massive swathes of material reaching far up to the vaulted ceiling, with one performer ascending (to God? To the gods?) while her cast mates again become part of the human/fabric chain, supporting her all the while.

The accompanying soundtrack comprises two pieces of spiritual music by Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa and Fratres, played by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The choice couldn’t be more apt – stirring to the point of being almost overpowering, but perfectly transporting the audience from its initial silence (requested on admission) deep into the themes of the performance.

The main action takes place on a long thin raised platform running the length of the cathedral, with seating either side and at one end. This reviewer has never been one for fashion shows, but the set-up is similar. The striking difference, of course, is that when watching the latter the only tension would be wondering if a model will trip and break a heel. In Eternity, there is the palpable fear that a performer could tumble from the top of a three-person tower and break their neck.

As a hybrid dance/circus performance directed and staged by Circa’s Artistic Director, Yaron Lifschitz, this is pure physical theatre, all about sheer brute strength, extraordinary dexterity and stunning skills. The acrobatics are the essence, but this is so slickly choreographed and performed, with each member of the cast always holding their form, it’s genuinely poetry in motion.

Apart from those aforementioned sections of rope work and aerial contortion, there are no tricks or distractions. It’s a show of tumbling, lifts, dives and somersaults. If that sounds basic, be assured, it’s not. It’s mesmerising in its fluidity. And all the more so for it not being presented as some miraculous spectacle. As close up as we are, we can see the straining muscles, shaking sinews and red marks on the performers’ bodies from the hands and feet of their cast mates, contrasting with the pristine white costumes they all wear.

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It makes it real and it makes it human. But the overwhelming impression is one of a single organism with moving parts. Superbly in sync, the performers are exquisitely aware of each other and don’t lose focus for a nano-second. They can’t. It would take just one moment of distraction, one flicker of a concentration lapse and they could jeopardise not only the show, but the very physical well-being of their cast mates.

In the end, this is, of course, a performance about talent and precision execution, but more than anything it’s about trust. It’s about connection and working together. And it seems to be saying, “if we have to face eternity, the only way we can do that is together”.

Eternity is being performed at St John’s Cathedral, 373 Ann Street, Brisbane. The final performance is on 16 September, but is sold out. It would be worth trying to get a return ticket.

The writer visited Brisbane as a guest of the Brisbane Festival.

Madeleine Swain is ArtsHub’s managing editor. Originally from England where she trained as an actor, she has over 25 years’ experience as a writer, editor and film reviewer in print, television, radio and online. She is also currently Vice Chair of JOY Media.