Perth Festival: Oráculos ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Perth Festival: Oráculos

NB: Serious spoiler warnings.

After I left Teatro de los Sentidos's Oráculos last night, I wandered back to my hotel room through the Perth streets feeling as if my skin were luminous, as if I moved through the luscious darkness like a soft, cool flame. It was the kind of night when the air is exhausted after a day of brutal heat and now wants only to touch you tenderly. And, as is often the way when I am away from home, my own exhaustion rose up out of me, up to the surface of my skin, but now it evaporated, along with all my anxieties, all my dreads and fears. For those moments, I was simply present. I couldn't tell whether I was wholly empty or wholly full: perhaps I was both at once, in that state in which plenitude and poverty meet in the possible.

The flour mill: Oráculos

I had been treated gently. I had been invited by many hands that beckoned out of the shadows, and I had been given a key and led to a door. The door opened me back to my present, out of the dark labyrinth of memory. I could have stayed there, in the labyrinth: it contained my childhood, but it was a childhood transfigured, made into a thing of wonder, leached of hurt. It is easy to remember the wounds, those defining scars that make us who we are. It is less easy to remember the small moments of joyous pleasure: standing on dead leaves in your bare feet, dry sand between your toes, the warm, live smell of yeast as you push the heel of your hand into bread dough, the dry liquidity of wheat as it runs through your fingers. They arrive in little shocks of sensual recognition as you move, your arms outstretched to guide you through a warm, blinding blackness, a soft labyrinth. Sometimes you stand, sometimes you stumble, sometimes you crawl. A light blooms and you turn and follow. Here, you are your own oracle.

The condition of entrance is that you must ask a question. I had a question, but it is personal.


Teatro de los Sentidos is a company from Barcelona that, under the artistic direction of Enrique Vargas, has pioneered the art of immersive theatre over the past two decades. Their particular area of research is the poetic of the senses and body memory:  the environments through which the traveller moves in Oráculos are designed to resonate within each participant. I'm quite sure that each person's experience of this work is entirely unique. Much of the theatre occurs in your own head: the complex, dimly-lit designs, the playful eroticism, the carefully placed sensual triggers, are all invitations to interior experience, reinforced by the darkness and silence out of which they emerge. Participants enter the labyrinth one by one: you are taken by the hand and led through it, but it is essentially a solitary journey.

Oráculos occurs inside an old building in an unremarkable suburban street. You enter the shopfront and inside are other ... (pilgrims? witnesses? "Audience" seems simply the wrong word for this experience...) Inside are others, waiting their turn to enter. Everyone is quiet, everyone seems patient. After a time, a man takes you by the hand and leads you outside, around the side of the building and up a fire escape. He tells you that you must ask a question, and waits while you think of it. Then he points you to a door, and tells you to knock. Soon someone answers, and you enter.

I have absolutely no idea how long I spent there: it must have been about an hour. What I entered was a fantastic world, structured by the Major Arcana of the Tarot: each encounter is a theatrical realisation of a different card. Early on, you are shown a miniature landscape, in which your life is depicted as a river winding down to the sea: you are asked to point to where you are in the landscape, and then you are given a card which you wear around your neck. My card was the thirteenth card of the Major Aracana, Death: the card of transformation. It was so appropriate that I wondered if everyone was given the same card, although I can't imagine that they are.

The trust you feel in the total darkness is astonishing. Although I might as well have been blindfolded, I never felt unsafe. The labyrinth guides you by touch to different rooms, where different things are happening. Most are populated by a half-seen person, who might silently point you to a chair and ask you to grind wheat into flour, or plant a seed in a miniature pot. One man, after carefully arranging your pose, takes an image of your shadow. Maybe you will dance.

One you encounter with no light at all: your hands blindly reach out and touch naked skin, long curly hair, the swell of a breast. She guides you, through a complex spiral dance, to a deeply padded coffin: you stand inside and slowly it tips backwards, so you are lying down, suspended in space, curiously weightless because you can see absolutely nothing at all. Some, like The Lovers - a white maze of lacy nightdresses hung on a clothelines, which brushes your skin as you walk through, or The Moon, a plank bridge over a small pond in which a crescent moon is reflected - are sculptures through which you simply pass. Each environment is full of details that I wish I had looked at more closely: tiny objects, empty picture frames, mirrors, toys, intricate machines which you activate with a ball-bearing or a ladle of sand, books, images, structural plans.

Another defining image is the seed, a grain of wheat. As you make your way through, this seed is planted and grows into a seedling, which becomes wheat, which you take to grind into flour. For me, the seed was the tangible symbol of my question. At the end, you find yourself in a room with lamps and chairs, where you might sit for a long time; you are given fresh hot bread and a cup of tea, and invited to write about your journey. There is home-made paper, which feels a little like very thin unleavened bread, and a board to rest it on, and a pencil. I wrote something down, but I don't remember what it was.

You need that transition, a space of time in which to return to the surface levels of the world.

There were moments when I realised that I was entirely happy just where I was, in this suspended, gentle, questioning, absurd universe. It is a profound world, which reaches into the places that language cannot express. Inside it is everything you want. It doesn't exist, but it is real, and you take it away with you afterwards.

I know the resonances for me were so powerful in part because I was a country child. I went barefoot all summer, and had to make bread every week. I spent a lot of time looking at moonrise through trees, or out in the bush making houses out of branches. I am so urban now that even if I haven't forgotten these things, I had forgotten their sleeping power within me. The poet Yves Bonnefoy said once that ritual is always an enactment of origin in the present: I think this is how Oráculos worked for me. Death is never simply an ending: and sometimes ending means that you have to go back to the beginning.


When I was back in my hotel, I wrote down some images so I could remember them:

The journey from the mountain to the sea.
The seed.
The paper boat and the joker.
The scales.
The lovers. The caress. Lace.
The devil.
The rope and the candle and the dark forest.
The moon and the uneasy water.
The wheat. The flour. The dough.
The naked woman and the coffin.
Always the seed that is growing.
The shadow that is me.
The hand that touches mine.
The voice touching my ear.
The chicken.
The basket of bread.
The shoes and the houses.

The door.

I didn't write down Death, although that was my card. I underlined "The door" three times.

Oráculos, directed and dramaturged by Enrique Vargas. Teatro de los Sentidos and Centro Culturale Il Funaro, Perth Festival. Venue details on booking. Until March 3.

Disclaimer: Theatre Notes visited Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival.


Kathryn said...

It was incredibly beautiful, wasn't it? I'd have gone again if there were tickets still available. My husband went the following evening, and our cards were different, and even some of the actors changed places (I danced with a female devil, he with a male.) Did you get your key at the place which matched your card? I did, my husband could not remember.

Anonymous said...

What an amazing experience it was. A beautifully written review. So hard to capture in words the magic of being there. As someone who also grew up in wheatbelt country lying down with the actor in the 'womb' filled with wheat was all things at once...a fear of drowning....a palpable eroticism and a mothers hug...loved it.
My card was the Tower and yes I received my key at the Tower.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Kathryn and Anon - yes, it is one of those works that feels like a privilege to have seen. Quite miraculous. I'm glad you feel the review captured a little of what it was like - it is hard to write about works where the most important things are not only unspoken, but basically unable to be said! I'd go again today, if it were possible.

I didn't make the connection with the key and the card. But yes, of course.

amy said...

Wow. You did an amazing job of describing what a teatro de los sentidos production is like.I was fortunate to attend " the echo of the shadow" when pittsburgh cultural trust sponsored it in 2008. I have wanted more ever since : )Amy.