Performance review: The Honouring, Arts House

An immersive, deeply emotional journey of loss, grief, love and redemption.

The Honouring opens with a harrowing image. Death sets the scene. I think, ‘This is not going to be easy’, and I’m right. And wrong. 

Over the next hour, The Honouring takes its audience on a transcendental journey to some dark, raw and fierce places. It is a journey of loss and excruciating grief, but Jackie Sheppard, who is from the Tagalaka Clan Group of Far North Queensland (currently residing in Naarm), is a deliberate and careful guide. They never let us fall into the abyss, and the darkness is interspersed with mesmerising beauty, tender vulnerability, even moments of levity. 

Sheppard is a versatile storyteller, utilising ritual and contemporary dance, puppetry, physical theatre and spoken word to express a deeply private, almost inexpressible journey. Their shifting, unpredictable presence – powerful and violent one minute, tender, sexy, childlike and vulnerable the next – seems to hover in the unsettling realm between the spirit world and the living, between violence, beauty, desire and despair. 

Sheppard manages to embody the struggle of being caught in this in-betweenness, of wanting to escape, to be reborn, to become the next thing while stuck in the now. They try to purge themself of this ambivalence, scratching, picking and pulling at their contorted flesh. They gently tend to, then violate, the body of a deceased loved one in the form of a life-size puppet (deftly handled by Sheppard). At times they appear to represent a disembodied spirit searching for a new home, alternately incarnated in animal or human form.

At other times, they come to rest – still, patient and accepting of the cosmos. Like the process of grief itself, they are exhausted, then animated. It is disturbing, painful and wondrous to witness.

Strong performers initiate a conversation, even as audiences sit in the dark, and I really wanted to talk to Sheppard. To ask them questions. Throughout the performance I found myself wanting to understand everything they were expressing and doing. Interpretations, both literal and tangential, flooded my mind and, as a non-Indigenous woman, I was painfully aware of my inability to fully appreciate the subtleties and nuances of the work. But in the end, The Honouring is an accessible ritual where we all face the cycle of life and death. 

The Honouring’s simple staging features a single calico backdrop fashioned in the shape of a large rock or mountain. Through clever lighting, designed by Jenny Hector, and projections designed and operated by Ayesha Mehta, with support from Jeevika Rajagopal, the backdrop is used to stunning effect, offering a continuously changing landscape.

Impressions of trees, animals, oceans, rockpools, stars and the moon move across the canvas, giving the work an ethereal, dream-like quality. James Henry’s sound design is another key dramaturgical pillar. Sound states bleed imperceptibly, lull you into a false sense of comfort and tranquillity, then stop dead, pivoting in new sonic directions. From ambient to thrash, Henry’s design almost acts as Sheppard’s alter ego, amplifying their physical and emotional states. 

Read: Ballet review: Don Quixote, Arts Centre Melbourne

The Honouring is not always ‘easy’ to watch. But it’s not ‘hard’ either. It is a multilayered, frequently elusive, eerily familiar, remarkable rendering of the existential nature of life itself.

The Honouring
Presented by Arts House, Victoria, as part of FRAME Biennial of Dance
Choreographer/director/performer: Jackie Sheppard
Creative mentor: Yumi Umiumare
Dramaturg and creative provocateur: Jacob Boehme
Lead puppeteer and projectionist: Ayesha Mehta
Support projectionist: Jeevika Rajagopal
Sound design: James Henry
Lighting design: Jenny Hector
Production and stage manager: Steph Young
Special acknowledgment and thanks: Irihipeti Waretini
Tickets $10 – $35

The Honouring will be performed until 18 March 2023.

Jennifer Barry is a Melbourne-based theatre producer and arts manager with over 30 years’ experience in the Australian and US arts industries. She has a BA in Communications (Theatre/Media), a Masters in Theatre Studies, and a Graduate Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.