Story by KIERAN FINNANE. Images by FIONA WALSH
The darkened space called, a light here and there enticing. People began to gather and took their seats. A brief speech of welcome, a few clues to what was about to unfold. Then, in a single sweeping movement, the MC pulled a blanket from a form hanging on a hook – a woman’s bones, as if offered in terrible sacrifice – and raised his arm towards players leaning against the back wall. One by one they crumpled to the floor. This was the curtain raising, yet everything was falling – blanket and bodies all falling down.
For this Persephone was going down, going under – ‘down under’. And theatre – of a richly hybrid, ceremonial kind – was falling into place.
We, players and many in the audience on this Saturday evening in a back street of Alice Springs, had encountered her before, transposed from her ancient homelands in Greece to a gouged-out cliff face just south of town, a place of beauty and damage, in the homelands of the Arrernte. We know the place as Ilparpa Quarry, which may carry the echo of an earlier ancient name and certainly the marks of its recent history. Persephone’s story as told then prompted us to think about who we (settler Australians for the most part) are in this place, where we come from, how we tell stories about ourselves, how we might listen to the stories of others (especially Indigenous Australians), how all this forms us, how it is held in part in the very food we eat if we only care to think about it.
Now we were being called to go with Persephone on another journey, into the realm of death and back again, to life. ‘We’ – players and audience. I had a foot in both camps, a role in the performance but watching also, although my spot on the stage (improvised in a former industrial shed, open on one side) and my familiarity with the script obviously influnces my viewpoint.
Three young women stood up and moved towards a microphone. Till then the MC – theatre-maker, author of the script, psychologist Craig San Roque – had held us together, but with each sure step they took I could feel the young women, with the lovely emergent quality of their age, taking over. My heart was lifting. One by one they stood at the microphone, reciting with simple gravity the opening poetic text (Kyah Gillen and Delphi San Roque at right, Ruby Farthing not seen).
For me this text is the most significant of the whole script. It tells the story of a girl, thirteen years old, who hangs herself on an airstrip. We know this scarifying story, it happened in our time and place. But in this version the girl takes the rope away from her neck, she comes back. “Show me another way to live,” she cries.
It’s a resurrection story, revisioned with urgency. Voiced by the young women it was a compelling reminder of our constant human task of nurturing the next generation, nurturing their very desire to live.
But what has this to do with Persephone, mythic personage from ancient Greece? As we learned (or were reminded) from the Ilparpa performance, Persephone’s dog, hers is a story of a mother, Demeter, and lost daughter, Persephone, and of the lost daughter’s return, mirroring and mirrored in the northern hemisphere cycle of seasons and of its life-giving plants. They die and they come back as winter cedes into spring. It is a foundational story of European cultivation, deeply shaping the European mentality and the way European peoples would later respond to the great south land they colonised. In this sense the old gods (as well as those who came later) walk with us still and it helps to remember their story.
To orient us to this new performance, Persephone Goes Under, we were given a recap of the story thus far, through a montage of images from Ilparpa by Fiona Walsh, set to music from the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, by the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki whose theme in the piece is the separation of mother and child. (Miriam Pickard as Persephone and Penelope McDonald as Demeter in the Ilparpa performance at left.)
This was another moment of poignant, eloquent theatre-making. The Ilparpa performance, experienced so intensely in the here and now as it unfolded, was transformed. Its figures, gestures, movements loomed out of the past, still and silent, a piercing reminder of the elusive present, ever slipping away from us, day into night.
We were ready then to set out anew in the company of Persephone, as she descended into the underworld in a quest to understand the fate of her dog, who has eaten a deadly mushroom.
She entered the realm of Hades / Aidos. In the dominant version of the ancient myth Aidos’s instruction to Persephone lies in his exercise of ruthless male power: he abducts and rapes her and she regains only conditional freedom. In the Ilparpa version, San Roque drew on a more woman-affirming subterranean story about the cycle of life and death, of destruction as a necessary part of rebirth, with Persephone entering this initiation into knowledge willingly, with courage, curiosity, sensuality and intelligence.
To those who question his departure from the dominant version, San Roque says simply, “There is always another story”, and in this he has the blessing of classics scholar Jules Cashford, translator of The Homeric Hymns, who asks, “Is that not how consciousness grows?” (Miriam Pickard as Persephone with Angus MacGregor as Dog/narrator at right.)
San Roque’s story-telling is all about expanding consciousness. He draws inspiration from a wide range of sources in the classical and popular cultures of different traditions, from the historical past and contemporary life, making the most unexpected connections. He liked to remind us, as we worked on Persephone Goes Under, of this piece of wisdom from Harpo Marx: “In a mixed up time in a mixed up country – everything can be reworked.” It could have been written for Central Australia, where as much as anywhere, perhaps more, we need great flexibility of mind and spirit.
At Ilparpa when Persephone joined Aidos in the underworld her attention in good part was on understanding plants, their seedbed and life cycles. In Persephone Goes Under the lessons were about the ways humans engage with destruction and rebirth, at broad and intimate scales. The pair pass beneath the Aegean sea and the islands whose names have recently become familiar to our ears – Thera, Chios, Lesbos. Persephone thinks she sees stars floating in the sea above. No, says Aidos, “Those are people in boats fleeing the war.”
Thus, with the lightest of touches, San Roque invoked one of the most anguishing crises of these last years, the risk-all flight of refugees in boats not fit for their journey and with no safe harbour awaiting them. With the help of photographs from Mediterranean voyages by Pip McManus and from the war zones of the Middle East by Rusty Stewart (at left and below), we moved with Persephone and Aidos under the Black Sea, under Anatolia, western Syria, Beirut, in and out of the recognisable present and the deep past held in our memory through the ancient myths, whether we realise it or not.
It was under Jerusalem where Persephone was made aware of one of her great tasks, which San Roque describes as “taking care of lost souls” (in Wikipedia it is rendered, per Homer, as carrying into effect “the curses of men upon the souls of the dead” – I know which version I prefer).
San Roque’s poetic script here is very evocative. Aidos tells Persephone:
This is a hole in the life of the world
Through which will fall generations of men.
You will make a net to catch them,
You will make a net to console them.
From this place, for ages to come,
Women and children will fall to your hands.
But Persephone till now is a force of nature, she does not have human form. She responds:
I feel the coils around me,
I feel the weight of the dying around me.
To my left I feel a net to catch people falling,
To my right I feel a basket fertile with seeds.
I have no hands to hold these things.
I have no hands,
How can I catch these people who fall?
As these lines were spoken in the performance, the projection showed photographs of a Middle Eastern woman standing trapped by a great roll of barbed wire. It was all that was needed to understand the resonance for now of the ancient ideas of cyclical destruction and renewal.
Human history seems to affirm these ideas. San Roque interrupted Persephone’s journey with an excursion into Assyria, where we heard a text written on clay almost 3000 years ago by an Assyrian king, Ashurnasirpal. He described with sadistic relish the sacking of the city of Suru, whose inhabitants he subjected to the cruellest of fates –impaling, dismembering, beheading, immuring. It was almost unbearable to listen to, with the atrocities of our own times ringing in our ears.
“Learn the hearts of men to come,” said San Roque as MC. “Remember this.”
Does peace need war? Does compassion need cruelty? some may have asked themselves. “Have I come into earth for this?” Persephone asked herself.
Her journey was far from over and Aidos would leave her in no doubt of the difficulty lying ahead. He had gone as far as he could. Alone now she would witness the fate of one who had travelled this path before her – prepared to risk everything, even death, in order to know and understand, which is a kind of rebirth. This was Inanna, Sumerian Queen of Heaven, who also descended to the underworld, craving knowledge of its secrets. (Sharing with Stephan Rainow the narration of this sequence, based on the ancient Sumerian texts, was my privilege for this performance.)
Now the audience could make sense of that chilling sculptural form (created by Dan Murphy) from which San Roque pulled the blanket at the start. It represents what happened to Inanna in the underworld – Ereshkigal, its Queen, Inanna’s sister, fastening on her the eye of death, turned her into a corpse, a piece of rotting meat, hanging from a hook on the wall, haunting image of a torture chamber reiterated in the projected images by Joshua Santospirito (at left, with Murphy’s sculpture in the foerground).
What brought Inanna back involved the magic or miracle of myth – creatures fashioned from the dirt under her father Enki’s fingernails revive her with the food and water of life – but it was also the result of human-like responses and interventions – the loyalty and persistence of her companion Ninshubur, the mercy of aggrieved Enki, his wisdom in knowing how to get to Ereshkigal’s heart, her softening when she experienced compassion for the first time. Inanna arose.
Through this story Persephone had looked into her own future of terror and hope. Without knowing why or how, now she found the courage to embark upon it, which meant having to acquire human form. This to-ing and fro-ing between the worlds of gods and humankind, the supernatural and the natural is a feature of ancient stories and of course it is present too in the later Christian story. It’s what helps us take their lessons to heart, to know that they are speaking directly of us and to us.
In keeping with the double-sided scheme of things in this retelling, the performance now took on a different tone, shifting from dramatic to comic, even if darkly comic. And the audience was literally turned around. Previously facing into a cave-like space, with ‘Inanna on the hook’ as its icon, they now faced outwards looking into the night, silhouette of a hill just visible, softly lit rocks and a fence in the foreground. A quite different sculptural form was raised in this space as its icon. Created by Sia Cox, it takes the shape of a woman put together from many parts (right). Its sense would be more fully revealed as the next stages of Persephone’s journey unfolded. In the company of the Pleiades – the seven sisters of Greek mythology, personified by two in our performance – she passed under the Indian Ocean to come ashore in north-west Australia.
We were now in a terrain of very free adaptation. The old continent we know as Australia is imbued with its own mythology, accounting for the creation of the land and the shaping of its original human societies, alive within them to this day. San Roque is acutely aware of this, and for decades has worked in collaboration with Aboriginal people in Central Australia on thinking about what their rich cultural heritage offers to contemporary life in the areas of mental health, addictions, law and order, justice, community development.
In bringing Persephone ‘down under’ he was inviting a reflection upon our shared history. European culture and mentality shaped the way the country was invaded and occupied, the way it is still governed in the mainstream. For those of us of European descent, San Roque’s story brings deeply embedded European ideas to consciousness in our own Australian present, not as antique relics of another continent in another hemisphere, but in their living encounter with this continent and inevitably with its Indigenous civilisation.
In placing the figure of Persephone – deconstructed and reconstructed – into this encounter he creates a space to imagine what our history might have been otherwise. As she chose human form – and what a gruelling process that proved to be – so might we choose to remake ourselves.
Above: Robyn Manley (left) and Ruth Apelt as the Pleiades sisters (Pickard hanging from the rope).
In her initial formlessness – expressed so well by performer Miriam Pickard as she hung like a dead weight from a rope (its noose a direct visual link to the opening story of the suicide) – we could see a metaphor for how open to other possibilities the encounter could have been. In her painful acquisition of body parts, the metaphor becomes much grimmer, evoking perhaps something of the violence and suffering of the frontier, but also of the struggle involved in re-imagining ourselves. There were glimpses too of that often neglected undercurrent in Australian history, where a different kind of exchange took place (and we know they do still), human to human. This was expressed, for example, in the beautiful sequence where Persephone had shaken off the pesky sisters and came across an old man, sitting by a hole in a rock. In that country where she had no family, that was empty and arid for her, he poured the water of life upon her with his “long black hands”: “In this country the water lies beneath,” he tells her. Her human form fills: “I arose. I thanked him.” The echo sounded with the Inanna story as well as with the many historical stories of Indigenous Australians guiding early explorers and settlers to water – often without thanks.
In another memorable sequence, an old woman in a cave, a Napangardi, endowed Persephone with her nervous system and brain: “all the glimmering points and links and lines and the flow of her thoughts coursing through the fine texture of her beautiful body … she looks like stars at night, all the constellations flowing in, long fingers finding places in her, weaving her together.” The evocation of shimmering dots in clusters and fine lines on a dark ground was a tribute to the paintings of the late D. Napangardi.
All the while there was another rich layer of meaning being put together and that was about what it is to be and become a woman. Unlike in the Genesis story, man did not figure in the process. There was a snake, but it was Persephone herself, as a force of nature, who was seen in snake form, which the Pleiades sisters cut and stripped and scrubbed away, inserting the new body parts in something like a reverse of childbirth and just as painful. (All this was performed with a terrific earthiness and mirth by Ruth Apelt and Robyn Manley.) The culmination is Persephone’s endowment with the “wondrous vulva” (a formulation from the Sumerian story of Inanna) and all that goes with it – fertility, desire, longing, conception, compassion, taking care. The gamut. This was a very different figure of woman from the dominant female figures in the Judeo-Christian tradition of Eve, created from Adam’s rib and cause of his Fall (and thus the Fall of all humankind), and Mary, mother of Jesus, whose perpetual virginity disavows feminine desire and whose destiny as a mother was to submit and suffer.
The Persephone we see emerge at the end of San Roque’s story is a woman who chooses her own path, who follows her desire even to the ends of the earth. Finally she has reached the Tanami Highway turnoff, where she stops to catch her breath. The sisters need a drink and want to go dancing. Persephone instead comes on into town and sits down alone at a cafe table. She thinks back to how it all began: she had realised that she loved Aidos, yet knew she could not be a lover without a human body.
In everything she went through she was choosing to be able to love as a woman, with all of the risk that that entails, including loss which ultimately means even death. She will go down again, into the underworld: “I have more to do with him below … I have gone as far as I can alone …”
Now the young women came back to the stage, to sing a love song – Lou Doillon’s I.C.U. – which like so many love songs is all about loss and longing (the joy is all in the past), with this one particularly apt in that the singer is in a cafe, where she imagines that she sees her lost lover “in every cab that goes by / in the strangers at every crossroad, in every bar”.
Does love need loss? the young women might have asked themselves. In their moving performance of this song we could anticipate that they would be ready to find out. They, young women of changing consciousness, would have the courage to live.
Below, from left: Ruby Farthing, Kyah Gillen, Delphi San Roque, Camille Bernadino.