Review | ‘UNHEIMLICH’ brims with otherworldliness

UNHEIMLICH | PICA | Until 2nd Oct | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

UNHEIMLICH is an unnerving work. A hybrid of art and live performance, this new piece from co-creator’s Katt Osborne and Tarryn Gill explores the unsettling power dynamic of a heteronormative relationship as it slips into abuse and alienation. UNHEIMLICH is not for the faint-hearted, but this is what makes it such necessary viewing.

The work came about as a way to bring Gill’s surreal and sublime artworks to life. And, oh my… they brim with otherworldliness. None more so than the narrator of the evening, an unnamed house cat (voiced by Igor Sas) who shifts from being a delightful animatronic puppet to a larger than life floating furry head. Joining the cat on stage are Male Human Person, Female Human Person and two dancers who assist in moving cat – and stage – around.

Now, there is a narrative, and it rests in the fact that UNHEIMLICH translates to “unhomely”. But there is also beauty, humour and movement. And then there is suggested violence, sublime unspoken horror and a palatable tension that wriggles and writhes its way into your psyche. But above everything, there is image, suggestion and a gesture toward. Here, in UNHEIMLICH, nothing is concrete or certain: obfuscation rules supreme.

And it’s this obfuscation that makes UNHEIMLICH so necessary. As we share in the tenderness of the male and female’s burgeoning relationship, things slowly unravel when we realise that the repetition of dialogue centred around childhood board games actually has deeper context. And when the male character’s face is replaced by a giant expressionless mask made of wool… this is when the horror truly settles in.

Added to this are the masks the dancers wear: formless blobs of clay with a hint of humanity, but just a hint. As these forms dance together and, eventually, antagonise the human characters, the expressions remain consistent, allowing us to project our own symbols on to them. Are these dancers metaphors for mental illness? Are they the spectres of regret that haunt us? Are they the faces of people beyond our homes, those unseen who judge us? Perhaps… it really doesn’t matter. They are there to unsettle, and that’s exactly what they do.

Another point of interest is the revolving stage design by Laura Heffernan. This set amplifies the mood perfectly. However, there’s one point in particular toward the end where panels are removed to reveal a set of mirrors. And then, as the characters grapple with their own unravelling, the lights slowly creep up to reflect us, the audience, back at ourselves. And in that moment, everyone in the audience is sharing in a collective unease, and it’s evident.

UNHEIMLICH did remind me of Maria Takolander’s recently released collection, Trigger Warning. In these poems, the domestically familiar is defamiliarised as family violence takes shape. The fact that both works have been released in a matter of weeks of each other speaks to something larger taking shape in the zeitgeist.

After a year of rolling lockdowns, for some people the sanctuary of home has become a trap of trauma, compounded by financial uncertainty and forced proximity. While not a direct comment on the pandemic, one can’t help but view UNHEIMLICH through this lens as a way to make sense of it.

UNHEIMLICH is a dense work. It is haunting and mesmerising, a piece that uses symbols to unsettle and instill horror in the audience. It won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but it should be: UNHEIMLICH touches on real-life nightmares in a way that is profound and dream-like, one that makes the unsettling almost enchanting.

Tickets to UNHEIMLICH are on sale now. 

Scott-Patrick Mitchell, images by Christophe Canato

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