Festivals, Reviews, Stage

The Power of the Holy Spirit review (Melbourne Fringe)

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Harriet Gillies’ newest work explores Marxist neo-feminism, post-humanism and a grim nihilism with subversive, and sometimes unsettling, results.

The Power of the Holy Spirit is defiantly postmodern – and while it slots into the Melbourne Fringe’s sales genre of ‘Experimental’ – it is for the most part a conventional work of post-dramatic theatre with a slight kick of live art. It’s also hysterically funny, unexpectedly moving, and clever as hell.

Framed as a lecture about – well that’s not super clear, but there’s an embarrassing act of sexual congress that gets unpacked quite a lot – she dips her toes into finding out about other people in the world who are also called Harriet Gillies. And then there’s the entire cultural landscape of the capitalist patriarchal Western world, if you don’t mind.

There’s no dramatic arc, there are no jokes, there’s rarely a point to anything, and as Gillies lets us know in a classic Dadaist monologue of repetition about half way through, quoting Matthew McConaughey, that’s: “Alright, alright, alright, alright, alright, alright, alright, alright, alright…[etc].”

Gillies’ anti-lecture is supported by an inundation of at times banal, at times horrific and at times gently comic post-internet gif collages. These might include, for example, tacky pornography with MS Word Art titles and violently flashing emojis, or nonsensical memes decorated with ridiculous yet presumably accurate stats and graphs. Gillies’ question seems to be less “Do robots dream of electric sheep?” as “Do robots on acid dream of freeing electric sheep from their digital-cages?”

Gillies’ question seems to be less “Do robots dream of electric sheep?” as “Do robots on acid dream of freeing electric sheep from their digital-cages?”

Oh, from the Fringe website: “Contains strobe lighting, full frontal nudity, strong coarse language, both sudden and sustained loud noises, potentially triggering content or themes, including Drug use, Drug References, Alcohol Use, Misogyny, Sexual References, Death.”

And a good deal of that does actually happen live as well as appear on screen. For the most part the images, the performance, and the accompanying text are worthwhile for shock value alone, but more than that Gillies is clearly intent on troubling us for greater reasons – to hold our gaze to the catastrophe of existence in the 21st Century and ask “Why it is what it is?”

In this, The Power of the Holy Spirit follows on from her last show from Next Wave Festival in May last year, a work that similarly frustrated and delighted in its explorations of technologies, emerging psychologies, and hierarchies of knowledge.

In her new work we are given a more personal narrative, literally, and as a result of this being a solo work. As you may have cottoned onto from the title, this is a work about power and about existence; and how we exercise what we have available to us in our current socio-political system.

There are some inspired ‘bits’ – a prolonged nude pratfall while Gillies is blinded by a VR Headset – and other parts that reference the sort of gross-out LOLs of Jackass et al. One scene, for example, is surprisingly both hilarious and nausea-inducing, in which Gillies feasts on something that is clearly mushed-up chocolate and yet impossible not to see as a solid human shit.

Gillies also repeatedly inhales nitrous oxide, AKA ‘nangs’ throughout the work, and is visibly affected by them. Could someone go and steal her nangs? I am not sure I can, in good conscience, recommend anyone see the show while this element continues to exist in the production but I didn’t do anything to stop her doing them, so maybe I’m equally as reprehensible for sitting idly by while she did them? (Even weirder, since I started writing this review I’ve been getting targeted Facebook and Google adverts for 24/7 Nang delivery services. Urgh.)

If you don’t already think people taking nangs for fun is insanely depressing then here’s a cheery ABC article with some doctors talking about the physical effects of doing them. It’s a great metaphor, a super relevant sign of our times, but I found it incredibly dumb to have to witness.

The Power of the Holy Spirit is bleak, even occasionally distressing, and it split audiences across the fringe – and clearly this critic. In any case, Gillies truly holds up a singular and phenomenal prism through which to consider the grim farce of our digital and physical lives.

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