By Rachel Arianne Ogle

Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, Perth
Reviewed: Saturday, February 12, 2022

Set in the depths of the State Theatre Centre’s Studio Underground, Rachel Arianne Ogle’s And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole is a work of courage and sophistication. The performance encourages the audience to face concepts that are often shied away from; immortality and the fragility of life. Running over two acts, separated by a 25-minute interval, the show presents these (often considered) unpleasant issues in a way that makes them feel quite beautiful.

In the first half, the audience is placed on the top floor around the edges of the stage (about three metres up), peering over the railing into the stage area below. The entire square stage is dark except for a grand piano and a mixing board which are placed on a small, raised platform.  From the very beginning, it is apparent that everything in this work is intentional. Sitting over the performance and looking in gives the audience a unique perspective; it really did feel like I was peering into a black hole that could swallow me into the afterlife. The lid of the piano is entirely removed, another intentional choice. As composer and pianist, Gabriella Smart, enters the stage and begins playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, there was something both dreamy and melancholic about watching the skeleton-like insides of the piano working.

Smart plays Moonlight Sonata in full before any movement on the stage occurs. As the piece finishes, composer and live producer, Luke Smiles, also enters the stage, taking up residency at the mixing board.  Smiles begins to manipulate the sounds of the piano, so it sounds like it is screeching, with heavy bass layered over the top.

Six dancers (Linton Aberle, Imanuel Dado, Storm Helmore, Bethany Reece, Tyrone Earl Lraé Robinson and Zee Zunnur), dressed in grey pants and shirts, emerge through the smoke and darkness. Yellow lights flash and the dancers dart about the stage, holding onto each other desperately. The choreography in the first half shifts between frantic and slow movement, evoking a feeling of falling through the earth both quickly and in slow motion.

The dancers’ movement in the first half is fluid and expansive. Their faces remain expressionless, which allows the emotion of the performance to shine through the choreography. The second half has far less movement, as five of the performers surround one woman (Zunnur) and slowly wrap her body and hair in tissue paper, demonstrating burial rituals to honour her body. While the second half is a little slow, it is visually striking, especially because the audience is placed on the stage and encouraged to walk around to see the scene from different angles.

There are so many clever aspects to this performance, but there is one part that was truly exceptional. Towards the end of the first half, a sheet of black silk is drawn across the stage, covering its entirety. One lone dancer (Zunnur) stands in the middle as the other dancers lift the sheet to ripple air underneath. This scene is otherworldly. The silk looks like a sea of black waves, quietly intensifying to eventually swallow the woman. My jaw, quite literally, was open the entire time.

The score for the performance, created by Smart, Smiles and Alisdair Macindoe, is often intense, disorienting and overwhelming, which made me feel as though I, too, was tumbling through the abyss. The lighting by Bosco Shaw, and the set and costume design by Bruce McKinven, are equally clever and complimentary.

And The Earth Will Swallow Them Whole is moving and completely captivating, a true triumph for Ogle.


All photos of the production above are by Emma Fishwick.

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