Sackcloth and Ashes (2016). Studio Utopia Theatre, Tempting Failure, London.

Review of our performance by David LaGaccia for Incident Magazine. Photo by Julia Bauer.
      

                                                



Natalie Raven and Dagmar SchwitzgebelSackcloth and Ashes (2016)   

The spectators were asked to sit in one of the four squares at the start of the performance, each separated from the long white fabric, sackcloth that formed a cross; Natalie Raven and Dagmar Schwitzgebel stood on opposite ends of the vertical line holding up their hands with palms facing out. The two walk towards each other and meet at the cross-section of the cross with their bodies contrasting in physique. Their hands meet in force with their arms raised like a steeple; they both get on their knees, pushing back and forth in opposition.

Schwitzgebel stands up and picks up the fabric cutting a hole in middle and placing it over her head and covering her body like religious robes. In the middle of the cross, a pile of ashes or soot is exposed, reminiscent of ashes normally used to form the cross on the face for Ash Wednesday. Raven picks up another piece of fabric and does same, but it becomes clear that she wears the garment looser, with her feminine body fully exposed. Both go into their actions, defining their identities separately.

Although no specific meaning was discernible from their use of Christian iconography and religious gestures, it was clear that Raven and Schwitzgebel had used this iconography for their own symbolic purposes: carefully considered actions and images of the cross, baptism, religious attire, and prayer could all be seen throughout this performance. Performances dealing with religion as their subject (specifically Christianity), tend to have a moral stance on the issue of belief or non-belief (or institution), but rarely do you see a performance show the artist expressing their own conflicted attitudes, adding their own perspective to the conversation rather than dictating it.

Raven’s actions were more sexual and opposed to the religious beliefs. Her breasts and clitoris were freely exposed for the spectators to see, making gestures in the air that suggested masturbation, slamming her head into the pile of ashes, and spitting it out when it got in her mouth.

Opposing her was Schwitzgebel, who wore the sackcloth draped over her body like a robe covering her female body. Her actions were filled with religious piety and silent prayer, kneeling and forming a cross with the ashes, gently rubbing it on her face and bringing her emotions close to tears. After the performance, one viewer asked me if there was anything personally significant about the ashes: “Was it someone she knew?”, he asked, “or something that was close to her that brought her to the brink of tears?” I couldn’t say.

When the ash pile became smaller and smaller with use until it was gone, the two women stood together on the stage side by side. Raven took a tin pale filled with water, and gently cleaned Schwitzgebel’s ash covered body and face. Schwitzgebel did the same for Raven, gently cleaning her arms and face. The performance began with the two women in opposition and open hostility towards each other, and now they end with an embrace, with the two women becoming one soul.

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