Created and performed by Marcus Whale and Eugene Choi, Praise! draws inspiration from Psalm 150, in a “goth church service” that aims to celebrate the “intersections of the sacred and sensual”.
This hour-long work begins with five gender-ambiguous performers crawling down the recessed seating bank of the Brunswick Mechanics Institute, dressed in white nightgowns and long black wigs (for those performers not sufficiently hirsutely endowed), in a costuming choice somewhere between The Ring and Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Over several separate movements, the performers transition from a relatively natural choral setting of the psalm with its praiseful trumpets, harps and lyes, through spoken word, hematoma-inducing headbanging, noise and growl, back through choral duet and symbolic movement — while drone and soundscape reverberate through the spartan black space, which features a single cube of metal scaffolding.
Next Wave, which commissioned the work for Asia TOPA, has a reputation for experimental new work that showcases breakout performances. This appetite for experimentation presents the festival with the possibility of the beautiful, messy, fractured and downright bizarre coexisting alongside the terrible, glorious, incomprehensible and amazing.
Originally staged as a 20min work for two performers and choir for Underbelly festival in 2017, the work has been extended for this high-profile Asia TOPA outing. Not having seen the original work in full, it’s difficult to assess where the work has been and come from but I was curious at least to see where it was going.
Context is, in some ways, everything.
I came to this piece with relatively high expectations, in no small part lead there by the promotional promise of a “grand saturnine path to epic revelry and reverence”. True, the work was glum, moody and raw, but ultimately it fell short of either Saturn’s surliness or a more reverent variety of heroism. Had I thought I was merely attending an experimental noise gig, I might have been pleasantly surprised by the additional layers provided by the movement and text and the ambition of the artists’ intent.
For Asia TOPA, I was more curious to see a domestically-produced work by artists of Asian and Australian backgrounds, without a more intensive effort to present the work as prima facie “intercultural”. Ultimately, however, this work felt slightly outpaced in Asia TOPA, with its many presentations of iconic and legendary artists. Juggling new, experimental work in programming that features world leaders offers risks – some exciting ones, mind you – but this work may have suffered in comparison to the broader program.
Unfortunately for Praise!, drawing inspiration from the so-called “musician’s psalm”, which has been set to music multiple times, means there is much to compare it with, which further contributed to my ultimate ambivalence for the work. The narrative, such as it was, felt limited and exposed when read aloud by performers in a muted recitation and juxtaposed against the more manic violence of some of the vocal performances. By the end of the work, it seemed ancillary to have started with the psalm as a source of inspiration.
Just before seeing this work, I saw When it rains (I feel like eating Jeon) at the Magdalen Laundry at Abbotsford Convent. In that case, I felt like the difficult, dark history of the space overshadowed the work in question.
Here, instead, I wondered if setting Praise! at the Magdalen Laundry might have given the work gravitas instead of the strained seriousness that comes with the intrinsic staginess of a black box theatre space. In that space, the queered lens of the work might have presented the performers as ghostly, macabre renderings of non-conforming females. The hoped-for quasi-religious ecstasy might have come at a much-needed tension with the role of the Catholic church in our collective histories. The stakes just might have been higher. Who knows? Re-staged in a different venue with some strengthening of the dramaturgical elements to justify an hour-long show, Praise! may have come closer to realising its lofty and ambitious desire for the numinous. I hope the creators receive that opportunity.
Mohini Hillyer Sharma