Thursday 14 September 2023


WHAT: The Nervous Atmosphere
WHEN: 14 - 17 September 2023
WHERE: Arts House (Main Hall)
DIRECTED BY: Ingrid Voorendt
SOUND BY: Jed Palmer
PERFORMED BY: Zoe Barry and Goldie Palmer
COSTUME BY: Renate Henschke
Zoe Barry - photo by Sarah Walker

Before you sign a contract you really need to make sure you read the fine print. I strongly recommend you do this before going to see The Nervous Atmosphere produced by Chamber Made and presented at Arts House this week. If you don't you risk not really appreciating the show for what it is and that would be a shame.

Zoe Barry (writer, composer, performer) had three unexpected and unusual encounters with lightning in the space of 6 months at a certain point in her life. Whilst none of them were direct, unabated traumas (the first hit her car, the second landed in front of the car and the third hit her house several months later) she felt changed by the experiences. It is a basic fundamental of human psychology to look for meaning in our world and our lives - that's how religion got invented - so it is no surprise these events triggered a quest for Barry.

Coincidentally, Barry had already started reading up on the parascientific debates of the 19th century. This was a strange point in history when real scientists discovered electrical current can trigger muscles spasms, when real and pseudoscientists were curious about electricity and the brain, and when the difference between a tarot reader and a psychologist was a matter of linguistics. Having been targeted so dramatically by natural electrical forces as she had been, there is little mystery about the breadth of Barry's quest to find equilibrium.

Undoubtedly, this curiosity was also peaked by the zeitgeist of our current times when the difference between truth and hope are blurred. Fake news is not just a political term. It invades our health and wellness with just as much danger as it invades our halls of power. Just like the quackery which emerged in the 19th century, today people are selling herbs and vitamins as miracle drugs, magnetic jewellery is being sold as a cure for arthritis, and TENS machines are sending low level electrical current into bodies by the millions to manage chronic pain. All of this is the parascience of today.

Barry spent a long time after these incidents chasing answers for her altered state and perception of the world. Everything was strange and she was strange in her spaces and places. We discover, in The Nervous Atmosphere, an incredible array of people she consulted with including doctors, psychologists, osteopaths, and - possibly the most interesting of all, although sadly not much explored in the show - a psychic. The great disappointment of this show is that beyond being a list of description, Barry stays on a metaphysical plane with all of her text so we don't really get to enjoy the ups and downs of her reality. Rather we stay suspended in the ether of altered consciousness.

This is where reading the fine print is important for this show. The Nervous Atmosphere - although having a starting point of thunder and lightning - is a sonic meditation. The word nervous in this case means 'of the nerves' and is not referencing an in situ agitated psycho/physical state beyond the most incidental of references. It is, in fact, a reaction against that very thing.

As Barry bows her cello rhythmically, and speaks her texts in a slow, hypnotic fashion, you are meant to fall into a kind of trance. The cello is bowed in steady time although it slides between majors and minors (mostly settling in the minor modes), and occasionally lazily sliding out of tonality altogether as if the weight of gravity and/or ennui make the act of bowing just too active for Barry...too connected...too grounded.

The show is 70 minutes long though, and I would suggest it could happily sit at 45 and that would make a satisfying experience. Instead, it lingers long past it's natural end which is disappointing. Having said that, Barry's practice is based around slowness which makes it entirely in line with her creative oeuvre. I guess I am just a bit too MTV. 

I think Ingrid Voorendt (director) could have helped guide Barry a bit more strongly with regard to performance dynamics. In particular it was the wrong move for the show to be performed with Barry in the back corner of the playing space which allows her to become disconnected from the audience. This is basic theatre-making and as much as there may be a good array of artistic rationale, it is bad blocking.

I have to say The Nervous Atmosphere is visually and sonically stunning. Bosco Shaw (set and lighting) has created a liminal space for Barry to examine her metaphysical investigations. Shorn sheep wool is piled across the stage like a big fluffy cloud and lights flicker underneath. It is as if Barry has ascended above the electrical turmoil which changed her so emphatically. Nature chose her and now she transcends it. The thing which impressed me most about Shaw and his impactful and innovative lighting is that he was able to evoke this limbo, this ether, without smoke, fog, or haze. There are not many lighting designers in Melbourne with that kind of skill or creativity these days and it is powerful.

Jed Palmer (sound) also works hard to keep this altered state and space in play, shifting the sound in space and time. Sometimes in synch with Barry's looped cello and reinforced speech, and sometimes in counterpoint. The cello and the loudspeakers have their own conversations about stasis and untethering. If the script (a combination of writings from Barry and other sources) was more relaxed and lyrical these sonic excursions married to the explorations of the bowing of the cello would have really taken us all to a higher plane.

The Nervous Atmosphere is an intriguing exploration. With some stronger performance dramaturgy it has the possibility of being incredibly disquieting and utterly peaceful at the same time. 

3 Stars

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