Celebrating friendship and beautiful mess

18 August 2023

Organised chaos reigns in this elegy for female friendship and parenting amidst global catastrophes, writes Claire Trolio.

Catastrophes, Renée Newman & Ella Hetherington
PICA Performance Space, 17 August 2023

Just as the last show I saw (The Hypotheticals) raised very relatable questions about parenting on a planet that’s in crisis, so does Catastrophes, a dark yet hopeful performance work by local performance makers Renée Newman and Ella Hetherington.

Real life friends Newman and Hetherington both gave birth around the same time in 2018, and Catastrophes draws on their text messages and conversations since then. Though casual and chaotic, the script is poetic, its tone melodic as it recounts experiences of motherhood interspersed with references to climate disasters, tragic news stories and popular culture.

The show records the first five years of their experiences as parents, heavily marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season as well as other contemporary events and, of course, their children’s rapidly evolving lives.

Catastrophes isn’t about their kids though, rather it’s about the artists themselves, both as individuals and friends. Their show acknowledges how all-encompassing motherhood can be, while at the same time affording Hetherington and Newman individual identities that are not dependent on their children. Children are at once everything and also just a part of these women’s lives – Catastrophes recognises this tension of matrescence but overcomes it.

At times the cloth canopy billows and breathes like a life force, at other times it hovers like a raincloud. Photo: Aaron Claringbold

The fact that text messages between the pair form much of the material for the show reflects an experience common to new parents. The world shrinks and reliance on digital communication for connection increases when nap trapped, or attached to a breast pump, or awake in the middle of the night. Even more so in a time frame that spans the pandemic.

Though digital communication is often criticised for its inauthenticity or illusory connections, it’s refreshing that Catastrophes allows genuine friendship and support to be expressed via that method. It can be a lifeline.

The feeling of isolation is compounded by scenographer Mark Haslam’s space. A line of mismatched chairs is assembled at the back of the deep box of a stage. Two of these are placed away from the group and closer to the audience, and are used by Newman and Hetherington the most once they emerge. Throughout the subsequent hour the chairs are repositioned but they’re marked by absence, reflective of the loneliness that motherhood can sometimes bring.

But the chairs can also signal presence. It’s revealed in Newman and Hetherington’s artist statement that they’ve been loaned by the performers “own friends and family”. Their loved ones are in the background, buoying them up when needed. The artists are so generous with themselves that at times the chairs also feel like an invitation into their community.

The performance takes place below a vast cloth canopy rigged up on ropes, designed by Haslam and deftly controlled by William Gammel. At times it billows and breathes like a life force, at other times it hovers like a raincloud. It’s dynamic yet always a little claustrophobic, and quite beautiful even in its relentless oppression.

So too is the soundscape, a deep and persistent rhythm. In a genius move, composer Ben Collins has sampled the sounds of a breast pump in the score, using its hypnotic, merciless, mechanical beat to underpin the work.

Catastrophes is a mood, a sombre one. Even the moments of humour – of which there are many – still pull at the heart. But despite its mournful tone, Catastrophes manages to remain hopeful.

On stage the artists refer to truth telling as a form of self care as they exude anecdotes and navigate conflicting feelings. I would say that truth sharing, too – the reciprocal conversation and the camaraderie that comes from a shared or collective experience – is also self care.

This is what Catastrophes does so well: it celebrates friendship, female friendship specifically. Catastrophes, as a metaphor for parenthood, is a beautiful mess.

Catastrophes continues at PICA until 26 August 2023.

Pictured top: Even the moments of humour – of which there are many – still pull at the heart. Ella Hetherington and Renée Newman in ‘Catastrophes’. Photo: Aaron Claringbold

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Author —
Claire Trolio

Claire Trolio completed a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) and a Bachelor of Laws (Hons) at UWA. She writes about Western Australia for various digital and print media and owns a shop with her sister. For her, the spider swing is the ultimate in playground fun.

Past Articles

  • Gentle touch guides lunar landing 

    Balancing weight with whimsy, this children’s theatre work strikes the right chord for its target audience, writes Claire Trolio.

  • Next-gen theatre makers impress

    From the fresh and funny to the weird and wonderful, WAAPA’s Performance Making students bring fresh, incisive work at full tilt, writes Claire Trolio.

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