When: 7 - 11 May 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Created and performed by: Jack Sheppard
Puppetry by: Tim Denton and Greg Fryer
Design by: Tim Denton
Lighting by: Rachel Rui Qian Lee
Sound by: James Henry
Stage managed by: Stephen Hawker
Personally I feel we have way too many festivals in Melbourne but right now we are in the middle of one of our most important - Yirramboi. The word yirramboi means tomorrow in the local languages of the Boonwurrung and Woiwurrung peoples and is a selection of works which are future focussed with regard to the cultural and societal lives for our First Nations peoples. The Honouring, being presented at La Mama Courthouse speaks to this with a powerful physical theatre piece about suicide and Sorry Business.
Jack Sheppard is an emerging dancer and actor who has experienced a lot of loss in his short life through death - some suicide and some a less self-actualised form. This is not unusual for our Aboriginal community sadly. 65% of this community die before the age of 65 (Briggs recently released a song about this...) and 95% of the community have been affected by suicide in some form across their lives. What this means, if you think it through, is that there is almost no-one in the community who is not brought face to face with mortality many times across their lives, and at an age much younger than those of us of immigrant origins would even dare to contemplate.
On top of this we must face the outrageous truth that many have lost ssential cultural tradition and practice due to colonisation, including how to process death and allow their lost ones souls to return to The Dreaming. This leaves those still living lost in a limbo of despair not only for their personal loss, but also for the bereft souls not able to ascend - and also for The Dreaming which is losing their stories in the richness of its fabric. It is also believed that suicide did not exist in their community before colonisation which means it becomes even harder to make sense of. The question for us all, but most especially this community, is how to do we celebrate the lives of those who end their own and help them journey to whatever afterlife they/we dare to dream of.
Sheppard's pain began with the suicide of two very close friends in 2013 and this is where The Honouring begins. The work is temporally linear and follows the artists journey through depression, pain, grief, love, and loss.
As we enter the theatre we encounter the first body dangling from the grid and the shock of recognition is surprisingly authentic. If I didn't already know what the show was about I could have easily assumed this was a comment on deaths in custody and other mortality issues facing our Aboriginal communities...
One of the incredible strengths of The Honouring are the visuals (Denton). How Sheppard interacts with the puppets (Denton and Fryer) is a thing of great beauty and love. He dances with his lost love ones. He comforts them. He nurtures them. He mourns them. He carries them... but how does he help them move on and how does he move on himself? He has no Sorry Business rituals to engage with and The Honouring is about his journey towards creating ritual for himself.
Dramatically speaking, The Honouring is still a bit raw and unformed. It swings between intensely literal and obscurely abstracted. The show integrates all of the hybrid elements of dance, puppetry, text, music (Henry), and lighting (Lee) in a really sophisticated model but because so much of the work is so good the elements which are still underdeveloped do stand out starkly. Sheppard consulted with a range of dramaturgs (Maza), consultants (Ginsberg) and provocateurs (Jasmin Sheppard) but perhaps just one theatre maker with a clear vision and strong story-telling skills would have been a wiser choice.
In particular the text is weak although there are some refrains which echo strongly such as "the S in the chest" and "There is no going back." I also would have liked to have seen a stronger presence of the meta-narrative. Perhaps building the ritual alongside building the story and experiences...?
Having said that, Sheppard's personal story is raw and powerful. The visceral effect of the birds clawing at his stomach was unavoidable, and his love for those lost emanated powerfully through his body and the room.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of The Honouring though, is the reminder of the depth of scarring for our First Nations people as a result of colonisation and how important it is for us to find a way to give them space, time, and agency to rebuild or build anew what has been lost to them which is so much deeper and more essential than just our 'white people' concept of land and life. Are you brave enough to confront this pain and longing in person?