CHENOEH Miller’s company Little Dove is known for its “Theatre of Love” that explores the vital and sustaining connections between people, often inviting the audience to embrace these bonds by physically interacting with its performers.
Its new piece, “Evangeline” explores the dark side of connection: what happens when these powerful bonds are severed and the individual is left alone to deal with heartbreak.
The night begins with a lengthy pre-show drink and chat, with the Courtyard Studio converted into a nightclub complete with good music, cocktail bar and nibbles. By design, we inevitably either find people we know and start to catch up with them or introduce ourselves to some strangers.
The stage resembles a dance floor, but it blocked by two forbidding performers. Erica Field stands facing the audience with her abdomen writhing as though she is trying to vomit up a poisonous snake, while at the rear of the stage with her back to us Ruby Rowat conjures seductively with her arms.
Chenoeh Miller is always interested in isolating and repeating actions to make them fresh and intense, in the same way that a familiar word re-read can become strange and unfamiliar. Field and Rowat perform these simple actions for more than an hour, becoming part of the set but establishing the movement motifs the piece will explore.
Only after this lengthy preamble does the show start, with Chenoeh explaining the origin of the piece and cautioning us on what we can expect (as well as reminding us there is an exit if it becomes too confronting). Field and Rowat do not stop moving while their director is talking, but instead continue their silent snake dance.
Then the performance begins. Erica Field raises her head and her jaw starts to spasm as though is fighting to cough up that viper in her belly. The excellent, intense sound design by Dane Alexander conveys torment, with Ruby Rowat and Peta Ward clambering onto the stage to add their own pain to the silent chorus.
The four women are made-up with pale faces and frizzy hair, resembling female monsters like Medusa or the Bride of Frankenstein. Their faces are distorted by pain as though they have been paralysed by a stroke mid-wail. Their pain is ugly and horrifying: while the audience was invited to move around and explore the piece from the multiple angles, most were transfixed in place by the Gorgon gaze of these women.
Finally, as we expect from Little Dove, the audience was invited to interact with the performers. This followed the formula established in Chenoeh’s piece “From This”, with acts of kindness from the audience (I choose to take one woman’s hand and smooth their hair) providing relief that vanished when the action was withdrawn. This led to many tender moments, although the temporary relief that was always granted suggested that relieving grief is impossible.
“Evangeline” is a new and interesting twist on Little Dove’s themes, but is elements are very familiar to people who have been following Chenoeh Miller’s work. This feels like a companion piece to “Six Women Standing In Front Of A White Wall”, a bookend to a particular creative era. It will be interesting to see what comes after grief.