Sydney Festival Review: Still Life is a musing on finding beauty in the mundane (Performances until 29 January)

Take a Cirque du Soleil show. Strip out all the colour, the costumes, the set. Turn off the music. What you’d be left with is something that looks a lot like Dimitris Papaioannou’s Still Life. Featuring feats of acrobatic strength and clowning, Still Life is a beautiful piece of moving art, created from the most mundane of objects and tasks.

Part art installation, part human circus, Still Life is a physical theatre production which takes its origins from the Greek myth of Sisyphus. To punish the greedy and cunning Sisyphus for cheating death, the Gods sentenced him to an eternity of pushing a boulder up to the top of a mountain. As Sisyphus neared the peak, the boulder would roll all the way back to the bottom. Sisyphus would return to the base of the mountain and repeat the process over again. For eternity.

In Still Life, the characters undertake similar strange and seemingly unfulfilling tasks. They are unaware of the beauty or joy their actions create for the audience. Much like the painted and drawn artworks the show takes its name from, the audience can choose to view each scene at face value – a boring vignette (in this case, a series of repetitive actions with no resolution) – or to look for greater meaning within.

Sydney’s Carriageworks is the perfect location to stage this work. The site of hard, heavy industry, and repetitive repairs, the workshops have now been turned over to those who search perpetually for meaning – artists. The Bay 17 stage has been kept black and bare. Above it hangs a globe-shaped object. It implies an object so big that only a small semi-circle of the entire shape is visible. Smoke haze billows over its surface, giving the sense of a moon or planet viewed from space. Onto the bare stage is wrestled a heavy concrete slab, shards of the rock smashing to the floor, covering the floor with grey dust. Other rocks and bricks are added over time, leaving their mark on the stage and the actors.

To further enhance the feeling of drudgery and futility experienced by the characters, creator, Dimitris Papaioannou, has chosen a monochromatic design scheme. It works beautifully, a little like black and white photography. Lighting is kept to varying intensities of white, and all the earthen products are represented as shades of grey too. The performers are costumed in suits and simple dresses, all monotone, leaving the dust to create a particularly interesting pattern on the shoulders.

There is no dialogue of any kind in Still Life. All the action takes place against a soundtrack created almost entirely onstage, by the falling rocks, crunching footsteps and clanking tools. At one point, a fascinating soundscape is built from gaffer tape ripped up from the stage. Enhanced by microphones held by the actors as they stoop to pull up more tape, the sound takes on a new life.

Papaioannou has assembled a talented troupe of performers, who handle the acrobatic challenges thrown up by Still Life with ease. The visuals created by writhing bodies seemingly birthed from a concrete slab at the very start of the work are worth the price of admission alone.

Despite all its beautiful musings, Still Life is one of those pieces that simply won’t appeal to some people. If you watched 1999’s Best Picture Award winner, American Beauty, and thought the character who filmed a floating plastic bag because it was so beautiful was a moron, you’ll probably think the same about this show. But if you’re interested in modern art, and exploring the beauty in the ordinary, make the time to see this show.

Still Life is playing until 29th January at Carriageworks for the Sydney Festival. For tickets, go here.

The reviewer attended opening night on Friday 27th January.

Photo credit Julian Mommert