Performance review: The Nervous Atmosphere, Arts House

A solo performance that uses music and text to examine what it's like to be struck by lightning.

In French, to fall in love is to be “struck by lightning” . For Zoë Barry, classical musician and theatre-maker, the experience of being literally struck by lightning (three times!) is both less and more than a fall. It is a piercing of the fabric of reality that allows the cellist to glimpse what’s beyond this life and into the next, and to live in the space between where the shadow falls.

Barry conceived of this show during residencies at the Lucid Art Foundation in Northern California and Historical Damsite in New Mexico in 2019, and then at an Arts House CultureLAB development program, following her real-life experience of being struck by lightning. While mostly protected by her car and her house, the event left an impression, and pushed her to explore the borderland where science, psychoanalysis and mysticism meet.

Barry has performed at venues and events including Dark Mofo, the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, and her work has been screened at such festivals as the Berlin Film Festival and SXSW. She has won a Green Room award, and in 2021 the ARIA award for Best Music Teacher of the Year. 

For this strong performance she adds a number of talented collaborators. Renate Henschke’s costume design of a black jumpsuit with a sheer top layer gives the cellist all the whimsy the designer brought to the costumes of the fantastic film Girl Asleep. Jed Palmer creates an eerie and evocative sound design, similar to the approach in his work with the Sydney Theatre Company, Malthouse Theatre and Sisters Grimm.

Tamara Saulwick’s dramaturgy has featured in performance pieces at the Substation and the Melbourne International Festival, while Bosco Shaw’s sound and lighting design is a real highlight, adding notes of suspense to a script compressed with an intensity of experience.

Read: Theatre review: Measure for Measure, Queens Gardens, Townsville

What follows is an intricate monologue accompanied by a delicate but atonal cello melody, as a seascape and a skyscape unfold on stage. A textual collage about an electric shock that pierces like a knife still manages to convey the the lightness of butterflies and the presence of sunshine. How a show that is a harrowing history of nerves manages to nonetheless convey the brilliancy of light is a true mystery that merits watching this electric piece of performance art. You’ll fall in love all over again.

The Nervous Atmosphere
A Chamber Made work by Zoë Barry
Co-Presented by Arts House

Composer, Writer and Performer: Zoë Barry
Director and Dramaturg: Ingrid Voorendt
Sound Dramaturg: Tamara Saulwick
Set and Lighting Designer: Bosco Shaw
Sound Designer: Jed Palmer
Costume Designer: Renate Henschke
Production Manager: Rylan Beckinsale
Cultural Interpreter: Jason Tamiru
Young Voice: Goldie Palmer

Tickets: $10-$35 

The Nervous Atmosphere will be performed until 17 September 2023.

Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre. Her work has appeared in The Age, The Australian and Meanjin