A harvest of weeds along with the wheat

Jennie Reznek in I Turned Away And She Was Gone. Photo: Mark Wessels

Persephone is a fascinating and complex goddess. Pronounced one way, her name sounds like that of a musical instrument. Pronounced another, it is simply musical. Even her other name, Kore, sounds as if it should be an instrument, a percussion instrument perhaps, with strings. Which is what a piano is, except a kore would be handheld. A persephone should be a graceful wind instrument that produce the sound of chimes, perhaps.

Goddess of the underworld, the realm of death, and the new life such death allows to spring forth. Queen of Haides, she is rich loam soil, she is the decomposition that feeds it. She is deep black water that drowns and nourishes. She envelopes the dying plant’s seed and pushes new growth forth. She is untamed, providing equally for the wheat and the weed which chokes it.

The first time I encountered her was in Jeff Noon’s fantastical novel Pollen, in which fecundity reigns supreme and without distinction between species or even taxonomy.

I was familiar with science-fiction and I was familiar with fantasy, but Noon combined styles and genres to produce what has been labelled cyber-punk but it is a label that does not ring true. It is not cyber, although it’s disregard for convention is somewhat punk. The label does not matter, what matters is he wrote a novel that, while almost impossible to pin down according to antecedents, was complete of itself.

I Turned Away And She Was Gone, Jennie Reznek’s poetic reworking of the Persephone story, similarly mixes different styles and performance modes, combining, at the very least, physical theatre, storytelling, and multimedia. Unlike Noon’s novel, they did not combine form a greater whole. Rather, each mode negated the other.

Now, while writers such as Noon created a new genre – however ill-named – The Magnet theatre has also carved out it’s own space in theatre, creating work that foregrounds the “language of the body”, and Mark Fleishman, who directed I Turned Away And She Was Gone, has been instrumental in that development, but I see nothing new here, the choices appeared formulaic. For example, Reznek, who was an engaging performer with a knack for creating sympathetic response, is seated on a chair delivering wonderfully poetic, evocative text, but at the same time had her elbows up at shoulder height, her thumbs linked, and her hands engaged in frantic flicker-flacker gestures, like butterflies having sex on tik. It’s obviously a gestural sign, but in this work many such gestures felt entirely unnecessary and served merely to detract from the performance due to their seemingly redundant inclusion, as if Fleishman was ticking a box on a list marked ‘things that make Magnet Theatre productions unique’.

Additionally, the oh-so-obvious hyperactivity and rapid speech to signify the depiction of a child was simply awful. It always is. There must be other ways of doing this.

But. And this is a positive But. This team, which included Ina Wichterich as choregrapher, Neo Muyanga composing the score, James Mac Gregor on the lighting, and design by Craig Leo, got a lot right. For despite what I felt were unneccessary physical theatre add-ons, the cliched child signifiers, and the equally irritating projection of scene titles on the rear wall of the space, I Turned Away And She Was Gone managed to evoke the poetry Reznek must have been aiming for in her writing.

Here, essentially, is a woman – Persephone’s mother Demetre – who has lost her daughter. Missing. Gone, perhaps stolen. A parent’s worst nightmare and a situation so overflowing with grief, loss and uncertainty that there is no reason to carry on living, except death is a luxury afforded only to those who know where their children are. Reznek manages to conjure this loss, but by evoking Persephone’s joy of self discovery, her freedom, power and abundance, introduces Persephone’s complexity by reminding us death and life, sorrow and joy, are interlinked. As are irritation and pleasure. The Shakespearean fool’s role given to Hecate, the grandmother, was also inspired.

All of which left me rather conflicted, for while this tale of Persephone melded instruments of performance to create new form, it sounded as much like bells and whistles as it did wind and chimes.

— Steve Kretzmann

I Turned Away And She Was Gone is performed at The Magnet Theatre until 14 March. Bookings through Computicket, at Shoprite-Checkers, or at the theatre box office.