Salome δ finds poetry in the chaos of illness

30 January 2022

Delving and dancing into chronic sickness, Salome δ is a wild and multi-layered ride but the landing is surprisingly gentle, finds Nina Levy.

Salome δ, Squid Vicious ·
The Blue Room Theatre, 29 January 2022 ·

To quote its own publicity blurb, Salome δ feels like “choreography for a crumbling world”.

A duet – created and performed by local independent artists, choreographer Olivia Hendry and theatre-maker Andrew Sutherland, directed by Joe Lui and Briannah Davis – Salome δ is reminiscent of stream of consciousness writing but it’s cleverer than that.

Multiple narratives – spoken, danced and projected onto screen – fold in and out of each other, beginning with the end of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salome. From here the work morphs into a kind of fever dream of excerpts from Susan Sontag’s essays Illness as Metaphor and AIDS as Metaphor and Jonathan Burrows’ book A Choreographer’s Handbook, that intersperse and punctuate the performers’ personal narratives (but don’t worry familiarity with these texts is not a pre-requisite to understanding the work). It unrolls against the backdrop of the ever-present, all-pervasive COVID pandemic.

Wilde’s seven veils form a chapter-style structure for the work, each section peeling back a layer or two, unveiling – as it were – the performers’ lived experiences of chronic illness.

Designer Declan Macphail’s pale gold and silver brocade robes over corsetry pay homage to Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for 1894 edition of Wilde’s Salome, the swathe of fabric that joins the two performers reminiscent of his art nouveau lines.

Sutherland’s monologue mash-up is a tour de force. He ranges seamlessly from text to anecdote and back again, at a speed that remains comprehensible but has us reeling. Against the constantly changing stream of projected images that gradually come to be punctuated with a chilling timeline of COVID statistics, the feeling of information overload is all too recognisable.

Tethered to Sutherland, Hendry moves convulsively, arching and contracting, as though caught in the maelstrom of his words.

In amongst the depressingly familiar pandemic-related bytes and newsfeed snatches, it’s the insights into the lives of the artists that are most powerful, as they reveal details relating to Sutherland’s HIV positive diagnosis and Hendry’s eating disorder. At times these revelations are chilling “it doesn’t want me to die, it wants me to suffer”, “I felt like I was more sickness than body.”

And yet the work doesn’t feel like it’s asking for our concern or our sympathy. For starters it’s shot through with moments of levity. And as each veil is removed, there is “a moment of clarity”; a pause, an observation or reflection, a chance to catch our breath. The pace eventually slows.

The pair dance together, resisting then capitulating, leaning into one another. Finally they gently converse and there is a sense of stillness, perhaps a sniff of hope, or at least some kind of respite.

It’s a resolution that is a credit to Sutherland and Hendry as writers and performers, and Lui and Davis as directors.

A poem that is both universal and deeply personal, Salome δ is a wild ride; an intense and compelling meditation on chronic illness in the midst of a viral pandemic.

Salome δ continues at The Blue Room Theatre until 5 February 2022.

Pictured top are Andrew Sutherland and Olivia Hendry. Photo: supplied

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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