Performance review: Portent (a ritual), Holmes à Court Gallery

A collaborative work spanning visual and performing arts inspired by solar eclipses.
Portent. A group of musicians and actors perform a ritual inspired by eclipses. Silhouettes of the audience are at the front of the shot.

Apart from wedding and funerals, there’s a paucity of significant sacred rituals in Australia. With our 200 years young colonial history and our ignorance of (and disinterest in) Indigenous sacred practice, it seems at times that we operate within a spiritual and cultural vacuum compared to the rest of the world. It’s a deficit we don’t realise we have until we witness a meaningful ritual in a culture other than our own.

Portent (a ritual), created by contemporary artist Andrew Nicholls and the Ad Lib Collective, was a sacred ritual inspired by the solar eclipse in Exmouth last year. It referenced sacred rituals from ancient cultures in relation to the phenomenon of the eclipse. This powerful hybrid of experimental live music, performance art and spectacle created an arresting theatre experience.

Many ancient cultures believed that an eclipse was an ominous omen signifying chaos and death, and a sacrificial ritual was often performed (as seen in the brilliant movie Apocalypto) in which the king would be replaced on the day of the eclipse by a commoner who, upon receiving the bad juju brought about by the eclipse, would then be sacrificed in order for any chaos and darkness precipitated by the eclipse to die with him.

Portent began with an eerie atmosphere created by smoke, light by Alex Spartalis, sound by Azariah Felton and a neon circle adorned with mysterious symbols. Into this space the musicians slowly paced the circle in a solemn procession. Ashley Smith on clarinet drew out long solitary notes, as they all took their places at their instruments. They then created an ominous soundscape using percussion and electronica to evoke deep space and mythical time. 

Into this surreal scene the performers entered one by one. First, the King – an Adonis, in gold paint-spattered fabric and camp glittery gold make-up, took his throne centre stage as the other, more sinister, characters entered and circled around him. The ritual was a feast of the senses, with the mesmeric soundscape, the exotic scent of frankincense and the visual cornucopia of mythical costumes by Rebecca Paterson, mystic jewellery and props by Sarah Elson and bold make-up by Manuoa TeAotonga.

The characters appeared to be archetypes. They were not given names in the program, so the audience was left to surmise which archetypes they might represent. I saw Death, the Warrior, the Seer, the Holy Man, Nature and the Queen circling the space.

Death was dressed in black, his eyes a streak of black warpaint. He surveyed the audience with a cold, piercing gaze, seeking a commoner to crowned King. He was followed closely behind by the Warrior, in red warpaint and fantastical armour, seemingly amped up and ravenous for slaughter. Holy men in rich fabrics swung frankincense ceremonially.

The overall atmosphere was of doom and destruction. Death and the Warrior paused menacingly beside several audience members. They were terrifying. When they hauled an audience member from his chair and dragged him onto the stage, the sense of danger was palpable. The audience member was the Commoner selected to be King. He looked genuinely scared as they hauled him to the throne, which the King vacated in order for the Commoner to take his place. 

The Commoner was crowned King. The music evoked the eclipse with a tension that built to excruciating intensity. Thea Rossen on percussion employed bells and thundering drums to create the stunning climactic moment of the eclipse. The Commoner was then hauled off by Death and the Warrior to be sacrificed and the ritual drew to a close.

All elements of this production worked synergistically to create a powerful, mythic performance. The soundscape was magnificent, combining industrial electronica, percussion and clarinet to evoke the gods, our solar system, death, destruction, chaos and the cosmic power of a solar eclipse.

Read: Exhibition review: Yhonnie Scarce: The Light of Day, Art Gallery of WA

The costumes, jewellery and make-up combined to create a camp visual feast of beautiful faces and bodies, cloaked in mythic regalia. The performances were strong – most notably Jeffrey Jay Fowler as Death and Timo Kroker as the Warrior, who delivered powerful embodied performances. At times it seemed they were channelling the dark forces they represented. Fowler brought an intense focus and malevolence to his character and Kroker’s aggressive physicality, magnificent war armour and red face paint powerfully evoked Mars – the god of war.

While the performers looked amazing, it appeared some had been chosen for their beauty rather than acting skills. The Adonis King, while stunningly beautiful, lacked the focus and gravitas one would have expected from a mythological figurehead. The lack of female and Indigenous bodies in this ritual space was also disappointing. Apart from this omission, however, this was a difficult performance to fault. It was an exciting and compelling work, and the absence of language made the mythical element all the more potent. 

Portent, the exhibition, opens this Thursday at the Holmes à Court Gallery @ No.10. Andrew Nicholls, the Ad Lib Collective, electronica musicians Wind Up Bird and artist Sarah Elson have created an immersive installation exploring global eclipse lore and what disastrous portents the eclipse in Exmouth may have forecast.

The combination of contemporary arts practice and technology, with ancient lore and ritual, promises a fascinating and deeply affective arts experience. Props to this collective for their bold vision and clever collaboration.

Portent the exhibition runs from 10 February to 16 March, free. The live event was performed twice as part of Perth Festival, 5.30pm and 8.30pm on 4 February.

Tiffany Barton is an award winning playwright, actor and independent theatre producer who has toured shows to Melbourne, London and New York. She has a BA in Creative Writing from Curtin University and an MA in Writing for Performance at the Victorian College of the Arts.